Show Your Joy: Getting and Preparing for an Academic Interview
Dora Malech | August 2016
In 2005, I added my newly earned MFA degree to the top of my CV and proceeded to apply for every tenure-track job that included the words “Poetry” or “Creative Writing.” Those words beckoned from the future I wanted, obscuring the other crucial phases, like “preference given to candidates with administrative experience” and “at least one book.” When I blanketed the tenure-track job market with a CV that still included my accomplishments from college, no one told me to do this, but no one told me not to do this either. I had just never asked. I thought my professors would find those job-related questions superficial, and the program’s culture, particularly among the poets, focused on the writing above all else. That culture was and is changing, and I have encountered MFA programs that, for better or for worse, hold publication seminars, job application workshops, and mock interview sessions. I have no regrets about the education I received; in fact, I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to focus on writing for two years as if it were everything, because in the most important sense, it is. My MFA prepared me to be a Poet, but “Poet” is not a job in America. It’s the lens through which I see the entire world—but not a job. Thus began the next decade of my life, which was a process of figuring out how to end up with the job I wanted—and figuring out what that job actually is.
In 2005, did I imagine that submitting a tenure-track job application was like buying some kind of very time-consuming lottery ticket? Or did I imagine that my few published poems might show such promise that I could be a contender? Besides a few form rejections, the most common response to my job letters was just—silence. I now, sheepishly, realize that I wasted other people’s time. I was the applicant who seemed to have simply not read the job call at all before applying. I did, in fact, read the job calls, but I didn’t know how to read them.
Alongside various part-time jobs, I taught wherever and however I could, a spectrum including business writing to accountants and Plato to first-year college students. I had the opportunity (and luck) to be trusted with some amazing short-term teaching gigs. I’m not sure I realized it at the time, but I was acquiring my second education on the job. This time, I wasn’t studying writing, or even just writing pedagogy—I was studying the field of higher education. I learned the hands-on differences between community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, and R1 universities, watched departments function (and dys-function), and found out about the competing and collaborative forces that drive higher education. Ironically, my best preparation for applying for and teaching in higher education was investing my energy in a job outside of the university classroom—working to get a nonprofit language arts outreach program for children and teens, the Iowa Youth Writing Project, off the ground. By agreeing to work with this fledgling organization, I agreed to a crash course in infrastructure, management, and fundraising. As this organization formed a partnership with the University of Iowa, I worked for the university in an administrative capacity, no longer taking for granted all of the behind-the-scenes work that enables university professors to walk into classrooms and teach. When I went back on the tenure-track job market in 2014, I went back with a decade of teaching and administrative experience, two book publications, and a hard-won sense of the university system.
In a climate in which, when I type in “tenure-track jobs,” Google helpfully autocompletes my search as “tenure-track jobs disappearing,” there’s no guaranteed way to land a tenure-track position, and while there is some (admittedly grim) data available about the state of the academic job market, and some (admittedly grim) posting about the job search experience on the Academic Jobs Wiki (a great resource, if one can curb the impulse to constantly compare oneself to others), there are fewer public statements from individuals reflecting on their own experience applying for assistant professor positions. Perhaps folks get their jobs and immediately face the realities of the tenure clock, which doesn’t leave much time for backward glances. Perhaps folks feel so relieved and lucky when they land that job that they put their heads down out of humble impulses. Perhaps sharing specifics feels like airing dirty laundry. With my own time in the current academic Creative Writing job market fresh in my mind, I asked some peers about their experiences, curious to see if I’d find commonalities, something akin to a “career path.”
My colleague, the poet James Arthur, earned an MA from the University of New Brunswick in 2001 and an MFA from the University of Washington in 2003. When I ask him about his path to his current position, he responds:
I’m not sure there is a path. I’ve been lucky. During the really tough years immediately after my MFA—years when I had no money, no book, no fellowship offers, and only a handful of magazine publications—I tried to keep things simple so that if nothing else, I’d always have time to write. I lived in the cheapest apartments I could find, depended on temp agencies for work, and applied like crazy to artist colonies. Whenever I got into a colony that provided free room and board, I’d find a subletter, quit my job, and go to the colony, where I’d have a month or two of uninterrupted writing time. Then I’d begin the process over again. After two or three years of living that way, I caught a big break by winning the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, and then things became easier for me: I received other fellowships and was able to find part-time teaching work. What pushed me to enter the job market was the birth of my son. As a new parent I had to start thinking more seriously about money, health insurance, and finding a stable living situation.
Arthur was on the academic job market for three years, during which time he applied for “about 70 or 80 jobs,” noting that “maybe 10% of my job applications resulted in an interview at AWP or MLA.” During his job search, Copper Canyon published his debut collection of poetry Charms Against Lightning in 2012. The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University (which was actually the only university that invited him to an on-campus interview) hired him as an assistant professor in 2013, just a year before I met him for the first time during my own interview process. This quick turnaround from interviewee to interviewer is not uncommon, which is perhaps another reason that recent hires remain circumspect.
Whereas James and I didn’t necessarily perceive our paths as paths while we were on them, fiction writer Ian Stansel saw the lack of clear trajectory as par for the course. He says that his path was “pretty typical in a lot of ways,” as after he finished his MFA, receiving a degree from the University of Iowa in 2005, he “had no book and consequently found no teaching position. I took a job I hated, went though a dark period, and decided to apply to PhD programs. I finished that with a lot more experience and a couple of book manuscripts.”
FiveChapters Books accepted one of those manuscripts, the short story collection Everybody’s Irish, published in 2013. He says, “I spent a couple more years picking up classes here and there, most notably at a nursing college where I worked full-time with some great, dedicated teachers and where I learned a good deal about teaching. But I wasn’t yet teaching in my primary field and so never stopped looking for somewhere I could focus my energies on the craft of storytelling.”
A PhD has always been the terminal degree for those seeking positions as professors of literature, and it seems to be becoming the “new normal” for writers seeking creative writing positions in academia as well. Like Stansel, poet Rebecca Hazelton Stafford’s PhD both helped her in the job market and afforded her the writing time she needed. She says:
I attended Davidson College and had really amazing professors who were devoted to teaching and student success. I knew I wanted to emulate their good examples. At the time, it seemed like the path to becoming a college professor as a writer was hard but clear—you got an MFA, published a book, and hopefully landed a position (which might take some time, but would surely happen). When I finished my MFA [at the University of Notre Dame in 2005] I knew my thesis wasn’t the first book I’d want to publish, so I decided to pursue a PhD in creative writing in order to buy myself some more time to write, and because there were beginning to be indications a PhD might be a boon. By the time I finished my PhD at Florida State [in 2010], it was apparent that the clear path to professorship was very muddy indeed. I was fortunate enough to get a fellowship at The University of Wisconsin-Madison, and then two visiting assistant professorships, but every year after my PhD was a year in which I didn’t know where I’d live or how I’d support myself. There were many times I considered giving up. It is not easy to maintain optimism in such a climate. You have to be tenacious, and you also have to be lucky.
Stafford’s first book, Fair Copy, won the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry and was published in 2012, and Cleveland State University Poetry Center published her second book, Vow, in 2013. She says, “In one of my last years at FSU, I attended a talk about preparing our job materials, the gist of which was, ‘You’re not going to get a job. Don’t feel bad. It’s not you.’ This was, as you can imagine, incredibly disheartening, but also useful. It was advice I tried to remember every year I was back on the job market. I appreciated the frankness. There are so many things in a job search that are beyond your control. There are departmental politics you can’t be aware of, there are inside hires (though less than you’d think), and there are jobs for which you simply aren’t a good fit.”
While it’s important not to take these rejections personally, it also saves time and effort to focus on the aspects of the application process that are within your control, which begins with reading job calls carefully—advice I could have used in 2005.
Kiki Petrosino, Stansel’s colleague and the Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Louisville, graduated from the University of Chicago with an MA in 2004 and from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop with an MFA in 2006. Sarabande Books published her first book, Fort Red Border, in 2009, and she was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Louisville in 2010. Sarabande published her second book in 2013, and she received tenure and became director in 2014. Now on the other side of the search committee and tenure process, Petrosino says:
When I was applying for tenure-track positions several years ago, I didn’t know how much deliberation goes into crafting a job ad before it’s posted. I just thought each search committee would draft something, post it right away, and that the terms of the hire were somewhat flexible. As a tenured faculty member in an English department, I now know that each job ad must go through several rounds of approval, and that members of the whole department, the unit or college, and Human Resources all participate in the hiring process. Each department has unique instructional and research needs that are reflected in the ad language, so it’s important for applicants to carefully review each listing before sending application materials. Because the job ad must clear so many stages of review and approval, it’s unlikely that a search committee would be able to consider a candidate who does not meet the minimum qualifications stated in the ad, even if an applicant is strong in other, unexpected ways.
Petrosino emphasizes that the parameters of search criteria are really the bottom line in this regard.
In terms of finding jobs in the first place, I relied on the AWP website and the Academic Jobs Wiki; Stafford added the MLA job board and Higher Ed jobs to her search, but also mentions that she “found Allison Joseph’s CRWROPPS list to be the most useful and comprehensive.” Stafford shares that she “kept an online spreadsheet of jobs, requested materials, and deadlines.” She notes that, “Doing this meant I was less likely to miss jobs, and also meant I could break down the onerous task of applying to jobs into discrete chunks.” I found Scrivener software to be helpful for similar reasons, as it helped me organize what would be piles of job calls, teaching materials, and cover letters into manageable, organized work. Stafford also recommends the website The Professor Is In as a resource. It’s “aimed more at traditional academics and not as much at poets and writers, but there is a lot of good information and many people you are likely to interview with are traditional academics, so it’s probably not a bad idea to consider their expectations.” Interfolio is the standard site for dossier materials and recommendation letters. With Interfolio, Stafford says, “I could complete applications without having to notify my recommenders in advance for the most part, and only have to trouble them once a year to update the letters if needed. It was important to me to not inconvenience my recommenders as much as possible, because I knew they were doing me a great favor.”
Stafford continues, “Over the years my materials became stronger because I intensely revised and re-envisioned them. My friends who were also on the job market were kind enough to share their materials with me, and I have tried to repay that favor to others. It’s helpful to realize there’s no ‘right’ job letter or teaching statement, but there are a number of wrong ones, and looking at strong letters can help you see the missteps in your own.”
Sara Eaton, Chair of the English Department at North Central College, confirms that Stafford’s investment in the specifics of her job application were important, saying, “We had almost 200 applicants for the position. Potential faculty really need to fit the needs of the institution to survive the cuts the search committee must make—and say so in the application letter. That letter is the first step in the candidate’s continued viability in the search process.”
When a writer is applying to many positions, while still trying to function at a current job and actually write, planning ahead can make all the difference. Reviewing search criteria, focusing applications on job calls that actually match your qualifications and interests, and organizing materials becomes crucial, and it allows you to give each application the attention it requires.
Stansel commented on this issue, saying, “The biggest thing is just how long it can take. I applied for positions a few years in a row (some years more seriously than others), and each time my cover letter went through several iterations. That, plus making sure my CV was in order, adjusting writing samples to fit what each school wants, arranging for transcripts, asking for letters of recommendations and then for updates of letters of recommendations, plus handling what seemed like a hundred other small tasks … it all infiltrated any moments of what otherwise might have been ‘free time.’”
Petrosino doubts “that anyone’s precise path to a tenure-track job could ever be repeated by another applicant,” yet she acknowledges the “series of small tasks—compiling your dossier, writing your cover letter, drafting your CV—that accompanies each job search.” She says, “As an applicant, I took an odd, clerical comfort in being able to exercise control over this initial part of the process. For example, I would organize my CV and cover letter to address search criteria in the order in which they appeared within a given job ad. But those small tweaks don’t add up to a hiring ‘path.’ The truth is that it’s part process, part luck. Your materials have to arrive in front of the right people at the right moment. And just as each institution is selective in its hires, applicants should take time to consider which positions are the best fit for their research and career objectives. As an applicant, it’s easy to feel like the search process is ‘happening to you’…but it’s important to remember that you’re making decisions, too.”
This kind of attention to detail extends beyond the initial job call and preparation of materials. Novelist and short story writer Paul Griner, a full professor at the University of Louisville and another of Stansel’s search committee members, added a number of insights to Petrosino’s thoughts from the “other side” of the interview table. Noting that “the simplest things seem the smartest,” he recommended:
- Do your research. Know whether a department has a PhD or an MFA or an MA in creative writing (or none of the above), an undergraduate major or minor, etc. Familiarize yourself with the courses they offer, and be ready to talk about both courses they already have on the books you’d like or be prepared to teach, and others that you might conceivably offer. Know if they have a reading series, a journal.
- Be prepared to talk about your own writing and goals—not only the work you’ve already published, but current projects you’re working on. Have a rationale for why you might want to work at whatever school you’re interviewing at, beyond that it has a job opening. Candidates who aren’t prepared at this basic level tend to be swiftly eliminated, no matter how strong their work or letters are; they seem simply to be applying scattershot.
- Work to stand out. Most everyone applying at the tenure-track level for Creative Writing jobs will have a graduate degree, at least one book, and be able to teach Creative Writing classes. What else can you offer? Have you started a reading series, even an off-campus one? Begun some kind of community engagement (workshops, etc.)? Worked on, edited, or founded a journal? Received a second degree that qualifies you to teach lit courses? Those things can take a year or two to develop or obtain, but they’re well worth it, not only to make yourself a better candidate, but because they’ll keep you engaged in a wider writing community.
Of the years before he landed a job teaching in his primary field of creative writing, Stansel says, “During that period when I was teaching a lot of composition and professional writing, I tried to do as much as I could to stay in the literary world. I blogged about writing. I was a fiction editor for an online journal. And of course I kept writing and sending work out. Basically I decided that I would say yes to any opportunity that came up. I regretted this at times, when I felt overwhelmed by all the tasks I had on my plate, but ultimately it probably helped me to land the position I’m in now.”
Getting an interview feels like an accomplishment in and of itself, but it warrants a whole new level of preparation. Griner reiterated, “This will sound obvious, but be prepared. It’s surprising how many people haven’t done basic research on a school. We are not, for example, the University of Kentucky, even though we are located in the same state and are part of the UK system. We have a very different student body and a very differing mission statement, and it takes only a few minutes online to discover that. Have questions ready for the committee interviewing you, beyond the most basic: anything that shows you’ve spent some time investigating a school, a department, a program, is a good thing.”
The “behind the scenes” in choosing a final candidate is, of course, beyond a candidate’s control. James Arthur commented, “There are many factors at work, and as an applicant you can’t identify all of them. I’m sure hiring decisions often come down to interpersonal chemistry: a candidate who seems like a wallflower to one committee might strike another committee as being thoughtful and introspective.”
When asked for advice he wished he had received when he was interviewing, Arthur says, “When I went on the job market, friends who’d been on hiring committees told me to stay calm during interviews: to smile, take deep breaths, be myself, etc. Good advice, but I found it very hard to put into practice. If you’ve been invited to interview, I think the best thing you can do is trust that you’ve already impressed the committee members with your cover letter and work sample, and that they’re trying to figure out whether you’d be a good colleague. Allow the committee members to see your confidence, your warmth, and your sense of humor. At the very last minute, on the advice of my wife, I decided that instead of adlibbing my Hopkins job talk I would write it out, word for word. That was a good choice. My future colleagues wanted to hear a well-organized, intellectually rigorous talk; I don’t think they much cared whether my presentation style was spontaneous.”
Stansel echoes Arthur’s sentiments, saying “be yourself. This might seem trite, but it took me a long time to understand it. A number of times I interviewed when I wasn’t confident of my qualifications or abilities, so I tried to sound like someone other than myself, or I tried to guess what committee members wanted to hear. Consequently I was a nervous, possibly incoherent mess, and I rarely got to the next stage. But the thing is—and this is what I only recently realized—the committee wants to like you. They think you look good on paper. They’re intrigued by your work, your interests. So unless you fibbed on your CV, there is no reason to deviate from what got you there in the first place. You can also think about it this way: if you were able to fake your way into a position pretending to be someone other than yourself (which is highly unlikely), you’d to have to keep up that ruse for some time—which would make for a pretty miserable professional experience. So you might as well be yourself and hopefully you will eventually find the department that is a good fit.”
Rebecca Hazelton Stafford adds, “If I could go back in time, I’d make my former self do mock interviews. This was something Florida State offered that I didn’t take advantage of, and later really wished I had.”
I have two final pieces of advice to add to the mix. One is sartorial, the other, spiritual. First: do not wait until the night, or even the week, before an interview to try on the outfit you plan to wear to your interview. This seems like an afterthought, until you’re making a detour to an outlet mall to frantically buy a new suit when you should be finishing your job talk, all because the stress of applying for jobs has resulted in a pair of pants that won’t zip shut. Save yourself this stress on top of stress, and get any buying, borrowing, and hemming done with plenty of time to spare. Second: when I was nervously pacing around before an initial conference interview, I ran into the poet Zach Savich, who passed along a piece of advice from an unnamed poet of repute: show your joy. At the time, I laughed at the touchy-feely imperative, but as soon as I walked into my interview, it came back to me, and it made a difference. Joy is perhaps not a word that comes to mind when I think of applications and interviews, but writing—and teaching, on most days—are my joy, and it felt important to communicate that passion. That said, the unnamed poet of repute also told Savich that wearing black jeans counts as dressing up for an interview. So take all of the above with a grain or two of salt, even if those black jeans still fit really well the week before the interview.
Dora Malech is an assistant professor of poetry in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of two books of poems, Say So (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011) and Shore Ordered Ocean (Waywiser Press, 2009). Her poems have appeared in publications that include The New Yorker, Poetry, and Best American Poetry 2015. She blogs for The Kenyon Review.