You and Your Future Colleagues: Tips for the Interview
Katharine Coles | February 2016
How I Can’t Help
Alas, I can’t help you with your writing, unless you’re currently my student. Of course, the quality of your writing matters first and most to any hiring committee. By the interview stage, though, your written work has done its job: the people in the room have read and liked it. If this were the only thing they cared about, they wouldn’t need to sit with you in person in some anonymous hotel room.
Unfortunately, I also can’t help you transcend the anonymous room and create interview magic, the wonderful electricity that surges when the chemistry is right and everything goes well. You have to see to chemistry yourself.
How I Can Help
Almost all of my suggestions here, then, focus on very practical, even mundane things that are nonetheless important. Paying attention to them, as trivial as they may seem, can help hiring committee members focus on how right you are for their department rather than becoming distracted by the wrong things.
Once your work has gotten you in the door, your first priority is to demonstrate to your potential future department-mates that if you join them you will be a good colleague: someone who will pitch in as needed, who knows how to behave as a professional when necessary, and who will help them build and maintain the community in which you all hope to thrive together, quite possibly for decades, preferably without ever creating a scandal that appears above the fold on the front page of the local paper. It helps to keep this priority in mind at all times as you prepare for and participate in the interview: the hire has tremendous importance not only to your future but also to theirs, and theirs is the one they are thinking about.
For this reason, you do want to attend more than you otherwise might to things that may seem superficial, like interview clothing and the other small details that give the committee members their first impressions and contribute to solidifying their positive view of you as the interview proceeds. Really, you just want to exercise your good manners. Not that you should repress your individuality during this process. Rather, you want to show that you can simultaneously be who you are and contribute to a larger community of people who constantly define and work toward common goals. If you think it’s important to your integrity to show potential colleagues that you’re a rebel, a nonconformist, someone with edge, you need to show them at the same time that you can follow certain forms when necessary, possibly even with charm and enthusiasm, and that your edges won’t leave them all scratched up. The trick is to figure out how you can be yourself and demonstrate your willingness to be collegial at the same time.
What to Wear
If you have never owned a dark, matched suit and a white shirt, you don’t have to acquire these things now, or high heels or a necktie either, unless you have a secret yearning for them and a good thrift store nearby. But your attire should suggest that if you’re ever invited to have dinner with the dean and an alumna who might want to write a check to your creative writing program, you’ll clean up well enough not to be a negative distraction. If your clothes don’t conform to professional norms, they should at least refer to them, and their departures should be intelligent, perhaps aesthetically pleasing, even witty—they should set you apart in a way that says you are thoughtful, not lazy. One feminist theorist in my department interviewed for a junior-level position in a black leather skirt, a button-down white shirt, and a necktie made from a strip of a film she’d written about and was delighted to discuss. But men have some scope as well: a fiction writer came in dark indigo jeans, an indigo shirt, and a nifty, high-necked, old-fashioned wool vest, also in dark indigo, that more than made up for the lack of tie. Notice that the outfits I remember favorably departed from the norm but in ways that were interesting, even meaningful.
After the first mutual once-over, you want committee members to spend the interview thinking exclusively about what’s going on in your head. Because they are animals (like you), your clothes shouldn’t be notable, much less memorable, for the wrong reasons. Avoid anything likely to make it hard for committee members to keep their eyes on your face. If you plop down right in front of me and spread out, more or less at eye-level, in tight pants, a mini, even shorts, suddenly I’ll be thinking more about keeping my eyes off your crotch than about the conversation. Likewise with a shirt unbuttoned or cut in a way that tempts me to think about what is under it and whether it might fall out if the you lean forward too far and just how hairy (or not) it is. Once you’ve left the room, my colleagues and I will have to try as hard not to talk about what we saw as we did not to see it. Just as importantly, you yourself don’t want to have to worry about whether that skirt that always rides up is doing so now, or your snazzy tie is covering the gap that opens in your shirt right over your appendectomy scar, or even how tight your slightly too-small waistband feels after that big lunch. You have more than enough to worry about as it is. Better for you, the one in control, to think about your clothes before the interview than for anyone at all to be thinking about what you’re wearing, or whether everyone’s doing a good job of policing their eyes, during the interview.
With this in mind, it can’t hurt to put on your interview clothes and sit on a chair in front of a mirror to make sure you are comfortable and covered. Sit the way you usually sit; lean forward and back. Run your outfit by your peers, by all means, but also by a faculty member who knows how to adhere to professional norms, perhaps with variations or tweaks you admire. Drop by your advisor’s office in your interview clothes.
Bathe, even if a bath isn’t on your schedule. Interview rooms can be small, and you’ll be nervous.
Entering the Room
Leave time to stop in the restroom, both so you’re comfortable during the interview and to check that your fly is zipped, all your buttons are buttoned, and you don’t have a big smear of chocolate on your cheek.
Don’t walk in with an armload of stuff that has to be organized before you can shake hands—check your coat and other stray items in the lobby if possible, or leave them in your room or with a friend, so you can walk in with only a briefcase or handbag, or even just a folder with a spare vita and syllabi.
Meet the eyes of people as you are introduced to them, and shake hands firmly but not bone-crushingly.
If you’re offered coffee or water, take water unless you really need coffee, so you won’t have a cup and saucer to deal with (possibly with slightly trembling hands, if you’re nervous or already caffeinated).
If you’re going to get chemistry, you have to do at least your share, and probably more. This can be grim news for introverts, as many of us are, but chances are the committee members (also possibly introverts) have been sitting in this stuffy room for hours, perhaps days, and they are tired and either slap-happy or a little bored. You will need to supply energy—not in a false, energizer-bunny way, but through demonstrating your enthusiasm for the job, your work, and the people in the room as authentically as you can.
Fortunately, the committee members also want things to go well. They are on your side, because they want and are more than ready for the perfect colleague to present her- or himself, and they have already indicated by inviting you into the room that they think this perfect colleague might just be you. If you do your part to the best of your ability, so will they, assuming they are a functional group (more about this later).
Be prepared to talk about your work intelligently, in complete sentences, without recourse to slang or profanity, and without the kinds of endless pauses that suggest you’ve never really thought about what you do. This last should be obvious, but I am often amazed to interview wonderful writers who don’t walk into the room with cogent accounts of what they are interested in, why they do their work the way they do, and how they bring their concerns and practices into the classroom. Interviewers will assume that if you can’t talk about writing to them, you probably won’t be able to talk about it to their students.
Speaking of the classroom, be prepared to talk specifically about the kinds of assignments you give and why—again, it doesn’t hurt to have copies of syllabi with you in case they want them. Regardless you should be prepared to lay out an entire class you’ve taught and another you would like to teach, both in some detail.
Beyond this, know something about the department and its practices, and, ideally, something about the people in the room and what they do, especially but not only if they are also writers—not so you can toady up, but so you arrive prepared for the kinds of questions those specific people from that specific department are likely to ask. If it’s an especially literary or scholarly department, especially if it has a PhD program but also if its MFA program requires a lot of literary study, you want to prepare for questions about how you would incorporate literature and perhaps theory into your classes. The same goes for departments that are heavy on cultural or cross-disciplinary studies. If you’re an experimentalist and you’ve taken the time to note that there is a more traditionalist cohort in the department (or vice-versa), come prepared to talk about what you would add to the program without denigrating what they are already doing. If you can see from the web site that the department sponsors an undergraduate literary magazine or a strong guest writers program, or that they place an emphasis on community outreach or on bringing in underserved students, think in advance about what you will say if you are asked how you would contribute to these endeavors.
If you already have a job, the committee might ask you why you want to leave it. Even—maybe especially—if your department is more an anguish department than an English department, answer this question as positively as you can, focusing not on problematic personalities back home or on your own dissatisfaction, but rather on what you hope to gain from a move. Even if you don’t have a job, the committee might ask what about their department in particular attracts you. Be prepared with a good answer for this question, based on actual research. It’s fine, even good, to offer personal reasons like wanting to be close to family or to live in a certain kind of landscape as well, but make sure that you also offer professional reasons closely linked to their department and its work.
All of this will also prepare you for the inevitable moment when a committee member asks you if you have questions for the committee. Remember, this whole process is about them and their futures as much as it is about you and yours. Show an interest in what they are doing and in how they imagine you will fit in. Ask them about their students. Ask them where they imagine their department will be five years down the line whether or not but especially if you join them, and how the department fits into the college or university. And ask about what it’s like to live in their state and town. If this conversation opens an opportunity for you to share your own love of hiking or cooking or watching good films, feel free to do so. Show them that you are already preparing in your imagination to join them.
Speaking of Anguish Departments
You may have shuddered when I mentioned the possibility of ending up in a room with a nonfunctioning group, possibly connected to a dysfunctional department. All of the above still, unfortunately, holds—especially if you really need a job and you would still take this one even after spending fifteen minutes in the room with your potential future colleagues. Sadly, lots of us start in jobs that we want to move on from. I won’t regale you with interview horror stories, either my own or those of my friends and students, but I can give a few pointers based on them.
First, don’t get drawn into an argument between interviewers, unless it’s clearly a friendly, intellectual discussion, in which case you can weigh in if invited and if you know enough about the subject. Don’t be drawn into existing aesthetic battles; especially don’t involve yourself in discussions about politics. Let them argue among themselves if necessary.
Don’t get drawn into gossip or backbiting, either about their colleagues who aren’t present or about students or faculty in your own department. You don’t have to praise your enemies, if you are unfortunate enough to have them. If someone asks you about one, even in a way that invites you to sneer, remain polite; if there is anything at all good to be said—perhaps the person just placed a piece in a good journal, or is known to be a fine teacher—say it, even if it hurts. It’s fine to say you don’t know a person well.
If someone pulls you aside or phones you later and asks you to go out one-on-one for a drink or dinner or invites you to his or her room, plead other plans.
Again, at the end of the interview, shake hands, make eye contact, and tell the committee members you enjoyed speaking with them.
As you are leaving, the committee chair may ask where you can be reached in the next short while, especially if s/he doesn’t already have a cell phone number for you. Be ready with a card or a piece of paper that has numbers and, if you are traveling, dates when you can be reached.
Feel free as the committee chair walks you out of the room to ask about the timeline for decisions.
If you receive an invitation to one of the receptions departments sometimes hold at AWP and MLA, accept if you can, dress as carefully as for the interview, if more festively, and limit yourself to one drink. Don’t drink beforehand. Your potential colleagues aren’t looking to party with you yet; they are still watching to see how you conduct yourself in professional situations. This is part of the interview.
Follow up the interview with emails to the committee chair and all the members. You don’t need to do any more than thank them for speaking with you, but if someone said something especially interesting, feel free to say so. Beyond these emails, you should restrict your contact about the job to the committee chair or the department chair.
All of the above holds for campus interviews. Watch your alcohol intake, especially if your visit includes a reception in your honor followed by dinner. Of course, bring fresh clothing if the interview spans two days; depending on the schedule, you might also have a chance to change into slightly more casual, comfortable (though still snazzy) clothing for dinner.
Be prepared to meet with the department chair and the dean. Both will be looking for the magical combination of intelligence, charm, and professionalism that you’ve already mastered. The dean will probably want to know if you have a sense of the larger institution and your potential place within it. The web can help you prepare to talk about the larger institution as it did the department, but if you remembered to ask how the department fits into the larger institution during your first interview, you will have that answer to fall back on.
The chair will tell you what kind of public presentation to prepare—a reading, a workshop, a literary lecture, or a talk about teaching. Make sure to stay within your allotted time, leaving ample time for questions.
As with conference interviews, don’t accept social invitations that seem to fall outside the appropriate boundaries of the interview process, or (especially) allow yourself to be pressured to visit someone’s house or invite someone into your room.
Much of this advice is simple, even obvious, but I hope you find it useful, even a little comforting, to have it laid out. All of it is based in common sense and good manners—which is where I refer you when questions and situations inevitably arise that I haven’t been able to anticipate.
Your job, at a moment when it’s hard to think about anything but how uncomfortable you are, is to help others become comfortable with you. Again, the goal with all of this is to show the hiring committee, your future colleagues, what kind of colleague you will be—mostly, one who will show up rather than hiding behind the shades in your pajamas and refusing to answer the phone.
For you, this means being gracious and, if possible, talking interestingly about yourself, your work, and them, all without inadvertently flashing them, insulting them, or finding that you have to get one of them out of your room at midnight. In this, the interview is much like life. So, practice.
Katharine Coles is a Professor at the University of Utah and the author of five collections of poetry and two novels. Her newest book of poems, Flight, will be published in 2016 by Red Hen Press. She served as Utah Poet Laureate from 2006 to 2012.