With the MLA job market about to hit full swing, a few words of solidarity for my comp@s around North America as you head off to Vancouver this January. As the saying goes, hopefully you’ll get what you need.
On a personal level, I’ve got a good deal to be thankful for this year. Oddly, this coincides with this being the first year in the past 6 or so that I haven’t attended the MLA as a presenter or as an interviewee. Heck, this year I don’t even have to interview job candidates. It’s a nice, nice change.
I don’t think I have anything earth shattering to say about the conference or the interview process, but in the name of solidarity I’ll aggregate some of the best advice out there that I found applicable to my particular experiences at the conference and on both sides of the interview table (virtual and otherwise). It may or may not gel with your own experiences. That’s the nature of the beast.
1) Control what you can control. Like I said, nothing earth shattering in this, but I’ve frequently found that the process itself quickly warps your perception of things controlled versus things under the control of others. Know your basic spiel, know “who you are,” know why you applied to the job. Know this information inside and out. But also know that despite the fact the ad seems “written for you by you,” the committee and the department doing the hiring may indeed be going in the opposite direction.
Example from my own experience in my very particular subfield of gerbil weaving: two great job opportunities, two interviews that went fairly well, two committees who, when asked the question “what is the departmental vision for this position?” both responded, “We’re glad you asked as your candidacy has one major concern for us. You work primarily in the weaving of coarse-furred gerbils, but we’re really excited about those candidates specialized in fine-furred species. Could you do fine-fur weaving?” One outright mentioned the political implications of even bringing me to campus and seemed embarrassed about the whole thing. While my answer to the above questions was an unequivocal “yes,” there was no making up for the fact that it wasn’t my specialization. Both positions brought fine-furred specialists to campus, both hired excellent fine-furred specialists. I did everything right (i.e, controlled well everything I could control), but I was never going to get those positions (due to factors well beyond my control).
2) Don’t sweat what you can’t control (for very long). Some overlap with #1 above, but for my purposes different. After the first interview mentioned above I was disappointed. After the second I was felt outright insulted. The interview was over Skype, so in the aftermath of having been told that my interview prep for this particular position, heck even my application, had been largely sucked up into an HR unit’s need to create a sufficiently large pool of candidates, I sat in my office for an hour and collected myself. I had another interview the following week, as well as several others coming up at the MLA. Once that hour was over and the wounds to my ego were sufficiently licked, I got right back to work. It FEELS personal, but ultimately isn’t. Heck, in retrospect I recognize that these particular situations were even beyond the control of the committees themselves. In retrospect I genuinely appreciate their candor.
Along those lines, it’s OK to walk out of an interview with negative feelings about an interviewer who was overly aggressive about your subfield, particularly when you have to pretend during the interview that some inane line of questioning is completely legitimate. Walk out when the interview is over, give yourself 5-10 minutes to dissect what happened, and MOVE ON. Don’t let one bad experience (that others may not have even seen as bad/unusual) ruin interviews you have down the line.
3) Interview success is nebulous at best, and not defined by whether or not you get a campus invite. Hang in there. Your instincts would say that the only preliminary interviews that are successful are those that lead to campus interviews. After all, the point of the entire process is landing a job, so not getting a campus invite equates with a lack of success. However, each individual interview committee brings to bear its own set of utterly random, utterly unknown and mostly unknowable variables. Any of these can mean that the great interview you gave will go nowhere or even that the one you repeatedly bombed will lead to a campus invite. That’s no excuse for “winging it” (see #1) but nonetheless all the more reason to let things go as quickly as possible (see #2).
From the side of the interviewee this makes the process largely illogical and frustrating, but within the closed confines of the committee they are almost predictable. (Given the legalities of these things, that’s as far as I’ll go from an “insider’s” perspective. Just trust me).
As an interviewee, I’ve experienced this more than a time or two. I once had a 30-minute interview that lasted almost an hour (apologies to the candidates who went after me) and was mostly a comfortable research conversation between myself and the committee. They were engaged and kept asking questions, so of course we kept talking. The committee even requested that I send them a copy of my book (which, ahem, I did, but, ahem, which they never returned). I didn’t get a campus invite.
I once did an interview where one of the committee members was noticeably uninterested/fatigued and the interview ended in exactly the time allotted. Afterwards I gathered myself due to the fact I felt like that wasn’t going anywhere. A week later I was invited to campus.
I interviewed for a open-rank position that ended up going to someone much, much more senior. Shortly after the MLA I received an email from “famous senior scholar who surely has better things to do” where she said she enjoyed meeting me and would have loved to bring me to campus, but the committee wanted someone more broadly specialized in rodent fur weaving. She stated my research in coarse-furred gerbils was indeed very exciting but that it was a bit specialized for their needs at the moment. Great interview, awesome email from senior scholar!!!!…but no campus invite. That is, I did something sufficiently right to make a good impression, but under the circumstances things didn’t go in my direction.
4) Have fun. Interview season is incredibly stressful, but do your best to enjoy the performance and theater of it all. Joke with people on your way up/down the elevators to/from interviews. Wish everyone “good luck.” Drink a few beers (in moderation, clearly) and catch up with senior colleagues, friends from grad school, etc. Sack the book exhibit for all the free/reduced price books you can get your hands on.
Most of all, hang in there. And good luck.