The Answers That Matter
As soon as a college contacts you, you should consider it the beginning of the interview. This means that every time you write/talk to search committee members, everything you will say/write will play a part in the ultimate impression they will have of you.
When contacted by the chair by e-mail or phone, apply the following protocol. E-mail: answer within 24 hours. Do exactly as told. If the e-mail asks you to call the department secretary to schedule an interview at the convention, do that. In any case, send an e-mail response in which you start by thanking the chair and committee, expressing enthusiasm for this outstanding news. Sound like s/he made your day! Review your e-mail several times before sending it; double-check for typos or spelling errors. Spell the chair's name correctly. Answer any question(s) the chair asked. Ask the names of the search committee members and the convention interviewers. If it was not indicated in the e-mail, ask where the interview will take place (in a hotel suite or at the job center?), and the length of the interview. Your e-mail should not be longer than one paragraph.
If you are contacted by phone, the chair (most likely) or the secretary may call you. Regardless of who calls, show the highest respect. Sound immensely happy at this wonderful news. Thank your interlocutor and ask her/him to thank the rest of the search committee. Do not put her/him on hold. You should always have a pen, paper, or calendar available near your phone. Inform relatives or roommates who might pick up the phone in your absence that you are expecting an important professional call. Only you should schedule the interview. Ask the same questions as when contacted by e-mail (see above).
The chair will then want to schedule a date and time for the interview. If interviewing at the convention, if possible, do not schedule your interview on traveling days. However, sometimes you may not have much choice, especially if you have more than one interview (a good “problem” to have). Give yourself enough time between interviews because you may have to walk between hotels and/or experience weather-related issues. If interviewing by phone, choose a date and time when you know you will be alone and not disturbed. If possible, schedule the interview for a time when you will be at home.
The Convention Interview
When invited to interview at a convention, you will usually have two possible scenarios: interview at the "Job Center" (worst-case scenario) or interview in a hotel room or suite (best-case scenario). For any interview, give yourself ample time to get there, and try to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to the scheduled time. This will give you time to recover from the elements: cold/heat, walk, perspiration, disheveled hair, transportation issues, etc.
During the weeks preceding the convention, familiarize yourself, almost to the point of memorization, with the department/program, its faculty, and the college/university. Read everything useful you may find on the college/university website. Memorize the research background and interests of all the colleagues associated with the department/program. Do not ask during an interview (and/or campus visit), "What is your area of research?"; ask instead: "I have read your article on X and I was wondering…."
Print out selected pages from the website (especially those pages highlighting a vision, objectives, plan, etc.) and bring them with you to the interview. Research articles and books by committee members. Spend time reading the course offerings and descriptions, especially those you would be teaching (or have taught). Prepare complete syllabuses and one lesson plan for each course you may be asked to teach and bring them with you. Read again the writing sample you sent along with your application (where requested) and try to think of questions interviewers may ask about it, including unpleasant ones such as, "You really think this is publishable?" or "Do you really think students would be interested in reading this? Why?" Go over your writing sample with your dissertation director before going to the convention. Participate in mock interviews organized by your department. If none are planned, ask your dissertation director and director of graduate studies for one.
It is highly recommended to dress in professional attire for the interview: suit (men should wear a tie) and clean dress shoes. However, equally important is that candidates should wear an outfit in which they are comfortable, so if you invest in a brand-new ensemble for the interview, make sure you wear it a few times before the convention. The key here is that candidates want to be noticed and remembered for what they said, and not for what they were wearing. You want the committee to focus on your ideas and academic background, period. Highly recommended (especially if your interview is scheduled after lunch and not in your hotel): have a change of shirt/tie with you. Expect the unexpected: bring some aspirin, tissues, and small bottle of water; invest in an umbrella. Under no circumstances should you show up with your suitcase at the interview, even if it is scheduled after checkout time (use the hotel’s luggage area). Do not indulge in alcoholic beverages at receptions or stay out late with colleagues the night before the interview.
The Job Center
The "Job Center" is a large room with tables and chairs arranged for interviews. It is very noisy and intimidating, and candidates interview in the open, often seeing the competition while they wait or show up for their turn. Do not enter the room earlier than five minutes prior to your scheduled time. When entering the room, check the posted floor plan (and/or ask an attendant) to locate your table. Do not walk to the table until the exact time of your scheduled interview. If, when you get there, they have not finished with the previous candidate, do not interrupt the discussion but make sure that they see you. Read some notes until they call you and do not stand too close. If you know the candidate interviewing before you, do not ignore her/him; greet her/him in front of the search committee. If the search committee members “jokingly” ask if you would recommend her/him, say what a great person she/he is, at the very least.
The Hotel Room or Suite
Hotels are not allowed to give out guests’ room/suite numbers. Consequently, when the chair initially schedules the convention interview, she/he does not know where the interview will take place. She/he will give you the name of the hotel and will ask you to follow a procedure: you may have to call her/him at a specific time to find out the room/suite number; they may post it on the Job Center Bulletin Board; they may call you on your cell phone and/or send you an email/text message once they know the room/suite number. Regardless of the procedure, follow it very closely. For instance, if they give you a specific time to call, call at exactly that time (you do not want to interrupt interviews, for instance). Give your cell phone number, bring your laptop computer, and sign up for e-mail access in your room (even if you have to pay extra for it). Do not rely for e-mail access on the hotel’s so-called "business center" (potentially two computers for the entire hotel).
Hotels’ elevators are usually very busy. Therefore, take the elevator to the interview floor as soon as you arrive at the hotel. Make sure you immediately locate the room/suite but do not stand by the door. Retreat to the armchairs near the elevators and wait there until the interview’s scheduled time.
The interview usually lasts between 30 and 45 minutes. When you come in, first and foremost, shake the hand of every single person; make eye contact, smile, and say "pleased to meet you." Memorize names as people are introduced to you. If some interviewers remain seated or seem too far away or were in the bathroom when you first came in, seek an appropriate opportunity to shake their hand as soon as possible; do not leave anybody out. However, if an interviewer who was supposed to be there is absent, do not ask why; do not mention it.
During the interview, do not act overly excited but do not look bored either. Speak loud enough (but not too loud) so that everyone may hear you. One thing to practice during mock interviews is your body language. Regardless how many times you have to repeat something or are asked awkward/unpleasant questions, always address them in a professional, dynamic, caring, understanding tone. Always remain courteous; never attack anyone or any institutions or books during the interview. For example, do not say: "I will be glad to leave all these morons behind," but: "I am very excited about the possibility to join such an accomplished group of scholars." Do not say: "This book/theory is useless," but: "Personally, I would address this through the work of…." Do not say: "Are you kidding? She’s still alive?," but: "This is probably one of the most renowned scholars in the field."
Always take the positive side when answering a question. For instance, do not answer "How do you feel about working for a women's/small/religious/community/rural/isolated/urban, etc., college?" with "I don’t have a problem with that" or "I can adapt." Instead, link it to something you can bring to their institution related to your own academic experience. For instance: "Well, this would be a great way for me to put into practice my expertise in…." Under no circumstances should you mention your relatives, significant other, children, or pets during the interview.
Always answer/address all questions. Do not hesitate to ask your interlocutor to repeat something if necessary. Never say, "I will have to pass on that one," or, "What kind of a question is that?" That said, unfortunately, some interviewers occasionally ask inappropriate questions or make unprofessional comments to candidates such as, "Are you married?", "Do you have any kids?", "Are you Catholic?," or "That outfit makes you look hot." In such cases, it is definitely acceptable, if one of the interviewers does not intervene, to respond that you do not see how this matter relates to the job.
The type of questions may vary depending on many things, including the kind of job and institution. However, here are the classics you should be ready for:
- Tell us about your dissertation.
- Do you plan to revise/expand it and publish it?
- Why should one be interested in reading your work?
- What are you bringing to the field?
- Where do you see your research going in the next five years?
- How do you relate your research to your teaching?
- Why do you want to work for us?
- What do you find interesting at our college?
- What is your teaching philosophy?
- What is a typical day in your classroom?
- What would you do in such-and-such undergraduate course?
- What would you do for a given graduate course?
- Choose one course among the ones we teach and tell us how you would teach it.
- Do you and how do you incorporate modern technologies into your teaching?
- How do you feel about online teaching?
Alain-Philippe Durand is professor of French and director of the School of International Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Arizona.