the academic conference interview

December is quickly disappearing. And that means in just a few weeks I’ll be sitting in a hotel suite in New Orleans interviewing a bunch of candidates for our Early Islam search. UTK is lucky this year, and we’re doing three searches. One of those already did their first round interviews over skype. Two of the searches are going old school and getting a suite at the AHA.

The conference interview is such a strange, and artificial part of the hiring process. It’s uncomfortable for everyone involved, on both sides of the table/couch/chair/cattle-pen. Whose idea was it originally to have awkward interviews in hotel rooms? I once had an interview where the school sent nine people to interview their candidates at the AHA. It was such a big crowd that we had to sit in a closed circle of chairs. This made it very hard to make eye contact. There are much, much worse stories out there than that. Suffice to say, we all need to figure out a few good strategies to make best on a less than ideal situation.

Advice posts circulate around every year, but I figure– why not one more? So, here are a few tips from an interviewer to an interviewee:

  1. Relax. I know, that’s easier said than done. But, as a committee we are really interested and excited to talk to you. Think seriously about strategies to manage your nervousness. If coffee and caffeine make you nervous, don’t double down on it. If sleep really helps you, then do you best to make it an early night before. New Orleans will be a tempting place to take in a bar and restaurant scene. You’ve made the first hoop, and the committee wants to talk with you, learn about your work, and learn about you.

  2. Be prepared to talk about your dissertation/book/work in a few sentences. You are guaranteed that you’ll be asked about this. If I’m interviewing you, I promise this question won’t be turned into something silly like, “What would you say to someone at a cocktail party if they asked what you do?” I hate those kinds of questions. But, some committees will feel like a gimmicky question gives them insight into you. So, be prepared for this, or any other question, to be asked in a gimmicky way. You should have a short and sweet answer to the dissertation question, and also one that is more extensive.

  3. Be prepared to talk about teaching. Committees want to know that you’re interested and excited about teaching, and that you’re prepared to design and implement your own courses. We don’t just want to know that you can teach courses already listed on a course description page or in a curriculum. If an ad mentioned some specific type of course, be prepared to answer questions about how you will approach that class. But, don’t go do to much research on course catalogues– you have no idea how long courses have been in the catalogue, if they aren’t taught, if they’re the bailiwick of a particular faculty member, etc. Be able to speak to both general and specific approaches. (BTW, everyone who teaches history likes to use primary sources. Saying you do that isn’t enough.) If the program has both graduate and undergraduate offerings, be prepared to talk about both. Have a seminar in mind that you could teach next semester.

  4. For schools with high research expectations, be able to talk about what needs to be done to your dissertation/manuscript for it to be publishable, and what presses you think would be a good fit (even if you haven’t contacted them yet). We’re in a transition period, and for historians the single-authored-monograph is still the gold standard for promotion. The AHA interview is not the place to litigate its efficacy. Many times readers of this blog are more technologically sophisticated and forward looking that those who they’re interviewing with. Just remember that initial interviews aren’t the place to grind axes, and at this stage in the game you have to speak in a both/and frame, rather than a either/or one.

  5. Have a couple of questions to ask the committee. I think something like, “Where do you see your department in five or ten years” is a good one, because it gets the committee talking about themselves. Be careful not to craft a question that might be interpreted wrongly by people who could feel defensive about their school, student body, or geographic location.

  6. Don’t bring extra materials to the interview. If committees want to see more from you, they will ask for it.

  7. Scope out the layout of the hotels before the morning of your interview. Know how long it takes to walk from one to the other. Know where the right set of elevators are ahead of time so you don’t have to stress about it five minutes before your interview starts.

  8. If the subject of service comes up, connect it to something you’re particularly passionate about– undergraduate teaching? graduate teaching? outreach?

  9. I’ll say it again– try to relax. I’ve listed a bunch of stuff above, but remember first and foremost that the hiring process is about finding colleagues. People want to hire people they want to work with. And that goes both ways. It’s more the case in an on-campus interview, but you’re interviewing us as well.

Any other recommdations? Please share them in the comments below.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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8 comments on “the academic conference interview
  1. I’m not interviewing this year, but I can tell you that my heart rate was up by the time I hit #9. Maybe your next post should be on relaxation techniques that the committee won’t notice ;-)

  2. ctb says:

    Breath in. Breath out.

  3. Shawn says:

    Thanks for the post Chad. I wonder what you and others have to say about phone interviews in lieu of the AHA interview. Also, what other kinds of questions have people asked about the hiring department that came off well? I have sincere questions about a department I am applying to but know that the topic will be controversial for some–it has to do with the university mandating a particular teaching model for all teaching at the university.

  4. ctb says:

    Shawn! Phone interviews are tough. I much prefer skype, because phone interviews lack the kind of visual cues we all look for when answering questions. Have you said too little? Have you said too much? Are the interviewers connecting with you answers? Of course, everyone is in the same boat as you on that front. Best you can do is talk as enthusiastically as possible, and ask for feedback during the course of the interview. On the second half of your question, it’s hard to say. You could certainly ask an open ended question about others experience teaching with that model.

  5. erikloomis says:

    I think the bit on teaching cannot be emphasized enough. 90% of the jobs out there are at teaching institutions. Yet we all come from research institutions where we have been trained primarily as researchers by faculty who have succeeded in obtaining a job at a research institution. I think the ideal candidate needs to have some sense of the place they are walking into and try to speak to the kinds of students at a given institution.

  6. gerrycanavan says:

    I agree with basically everything but #6. I was advised by my local Job Guru to bring sample syllabi to the interview and was glad I had them to leave with the committee.

    #5 is hard because you have no idea what the local tensions are. Even your sample question (“Where do you see your department in five or ten years””) could unleash a potential shit-show by mistake, either because the committee has wildly different ideas OR because they’ll misunderstand you as denigrating their program and thinking it needs to change. I think I asked about opportunities for interdisciplinary cooperation and forming reading groups with students. The second is especially good because it can’t possibly be offensive and shows how much I really love working for people for free.

  7. ctb says:

    Thanks for the Comment, Gerry. I’ve interviewed before where candidates brought syllabi. They seemed happy to leave them. We weren’t really interested in having them. Maybe it depends on the type of school, but getting materials to carry back in luggage isn’t of interest. It’s still a preliminary interview and if we want to see more, we’ll ask for it. In this setting, I’m more interested in what and how a candidate can communicate orally

  8. CCF says:

    REALLY wish I had read this before sending a load of cover letters, because I’d have emphasized some aspects of my experience differently. Good to know though and thanks for posting!

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