An MLA Interviewee’s Survival Guide

A year out from his own run through the annual meeting gauntlet, Christopher Garland offers tips on being prepared, impressing the search committee -- and avoiding that last-minute meltdown in the elevator.

January 7, 2015


I’ll start this with a caveat. It’s a year since I was on the academic job market looking for a position in rhetoric and composition/professional writing, so this advice has not been marinating for a long time, the result of years of being on search committees, attending Modern Language Association conferences, or going to interviews in one capacity or another.

It’s instead a pretty immediate reflection, and as the 2015 MLA conference begins, I hope that if this piece doesn’t provide some guidance or comfort, it at least helps to reduce the pressure cooker of the conference.


The 2014 conference in Chicago still looms large in my mind, and if I think back on it, the feelings are still very visceral (as yours probably will be about 2015). I remember the thin whips of cold air when I stepped out from the plane’s cabin and the sway of the train ride in from the airport to downtown Chicago. Across from me two women chattered away about their upcoming interviews: one had one and the other had two. I know this because we ended up talking as the train raced past snow-covered apartment buildings.

We shared stories of schools that asked for seemingly every document under the sun; harried phone calls to Interfolio support staff to ensure that an application was actually sent; the constant revision of cover letters; and minor adjustments made to research statements and teaching philosophies. We talked through our nerves, switching topics but returning time and again to the conference. When we went our separate ways to our respective hotels, wishing each other good luck for the upcoming days, I felt better.

So, it’s simple. If the opportunity arises, talk to someone. This isn’t just a reiteration of the importance of networking; there’s comfort in this kind of human exchange at what’s probably one of the more taxing moments of your career.  


Remember the obvious thing: you got an interview. From that very real, very huge pile of applications, you were chosen. But please forget for a minute the intimidating numbers game of the academic job market. You have to think about what you’re going to do now that you’re at the conference, not those gut-wrenching odds that you overcame.

If you think about the latter too much, there is one explanation about your positive situation that isn’t particularly helpful to ruminate upon at this time: that you were merely “lucky” (I’ve seen this reason cited on everything from the Academic Wiki to Facebook). You cannot credit luck alone for why you’re here. Despite the often-used metaphor, success on the academic job market is not merely cashing in a winning lottery ticket. Luck played a part—maybe your dissertation title piqued a particularly influential committee member’s interest, maybe you’d been introduced to one of your interviewers at a conference years ago, maybe your application was read by a committee member at the right (when is that?) time of day -- but it wasn’t everything.

You did the work, measurable in very tangible ways: the hours of research and the thousands and thousands and thousands of words born from that, no matter how painfully they may have eked from your mind to your overly bright computer screen. Own the research and those words.    


By this stage, you need to trust in yourself that you can describe your project for different lengths of time. My mentor in graduate school identified two “talks” that one must master: the cocktail party description and the elevator ride description. I liked this designation because he didn’t allocate a specific amount of minutes and/or seconds that should be dedicated to each. Rather, he emphasized the context.

Sure, the elevator description will probably be shorter than the cocktail party talk -- it probably should take longer to have a drink than you’d spend riding an elevator -- but he reminded us to think about our audience. When you’re talking to someone at a cocktail party or in an elevator, one of the last things that you want to do is drone on or get caught up in minutiae. Don’t bore.

Let’s take the elevator ride description: in a clear way, you will convey your field of study and the main thrust of your argument. From my experience, in the “elevator ride talk,” what you don’t want to do is start talking in abstract terms about your work, referencing theorists who might not be easily recognizable or losing your message in a rabbit hole of theory and digression. Be succinct and compelling.

With the “cocktail party talk”, you have more time to elaborate on your research interests and how it relates to your teaching. I really tried to foreground that connection through the “cocktail party talk” because it made me focus on specific facets of my research and pedagogical practices. Get those talks down, and they will help you imagine the longer-form interview.


Wherever you’re staying, get comfortable. This might be obvious, but in the whirlwind of MLA you’ve got to take time to settle in. I’m going to try and avoid the obvious comparison of the “war room,” but your hotel room is the place where you are going to prepare for what lies ahead. Unpack your stuff. Set up your desk. That formal clothing that you both loathe and are somewhat excited to wear? Get it in its best state for what happens next. If you’re rooming with someone for the conference, I hope you’re at ease with him or her because you’re going to need to be.

Again, this sounds like I don’t need to tell you to do this, but when you’re focused on an interview you might forget the basic thing: settle in. You’re not going to entirely re-create your most comfortable personal living or workspace -- a bedroom or office or living room -- but you at least need to feel like you’ve got a space that’s your own.


You’re going to want to make more time for everything: showering, getting places, finding coffee and food, ironing clothes. You’ll be a little nervous and distracted, so it makes sense to give yourself more of a buffer. An MLA interview might only be 20 or 25 minutes long, but the whole purpose of your visit to the conference site is to be at your best in that short window of time.

Without trying to sound like a football coach, let me say that your main purpose is going to be to control the controllable factors. I’m not going to linger on this, but there are a number of things that you can’t influence, including, most importantly, the stress felt by the search committee due to their quest for the “perfect” candidate. Maybe one of the members has the flu and doesn’t want to be there. Maybe one of the members already has a preference for one particular candidate. All of that is beyond your immediate influence.

Know that you’ve done everything you can do, and now you get to have a conversation about yourself and your potential future in a department. Have questions to ask them, too!  


Come with me for a minute of the pre-interview experience: I’ve got a cab waiting outside in the snow-covered street. Please excuse my slow pace. I’m scared of slipping because the shoes I bought for this trip have really slick soles, and I’ve already faced near-disaster on the icy sidewalk. Luckily, we won’t have to walk far to the taxi stand, and I’ve got cash to cover the ride. However, please remind me to get a receipt. (Money is really tight at the moment, and I need a reimbursement more than you know.) Now that we’re on our way to the destination, the streets humming with the normal mid-afternoon activity of any of North America’s major cities, I can tell you that my stomach is tumbling like an Olympic gymnast. That’s what you need to fight again -- the churn of nerves.


My bad: I should’ve told you that we’re headed to a hotel, a huge one that’s part of a well-known chain of hotels, and the two tall buildings that make up this specific hotel stretch out toward the pouty sky. The lobby is busy, and a casual observer might note the number of nervous-looking professionals, but otherwise one would probably just see the other signs of a large conference: participants clutching programs and other documents; ill-fitting formal attire and awkward handshakes; signs that seem to misdirect at least a third of the people wandering the hallways.

It’s 35 minutes until the interview — having that extra time is helpful for your immediate mental health — but this is as important a moment as any other in your preparation. Go back over your research on the department. Make sure you can reference specific classes and programs. Prepare to show that you know them.    


There are three of us in the elevator heading up to our respective interviews, and now one of us is having what appears to be some sort of panic attack. We’re all strangers and haven’t said a word to one another. We are all in various states of internal unease, but the man to my left is showing his distress in very clear body language. He’s sweating profusely, and he’s begun tugging at his tie. His eyes are wide; nervousness ebbs off him like sonar.

I don’t want to say anything, but I empathize with him because we are all facing similar fates. When I saw my elevator-mate freaking out, I felt a turn in my own stomach, ratcheting up the anxiety that I was dealing with prior to getting into that upwardly mobile steel box. But it also made me realize what I couldn’t do, which, quite simply, is what was going on with this guy in the elevator. There wasn’t a lot of time left to compose oneself. Whether he was going to the fifth floor, the eighth floor, or the ninth floor, the outcome was going to be the same: a group of people was waiting in a room for him. He’d have some moment in the hallway to compose himself before he went in, but the clock was starting to run down.  


Here’s the thing: you have to walk through that hotel door. You have to meet people who you’ve probably only seen via faculty profiles on a department website. You’re required to sit down and answer questions and engage in a conversation. You will approach the door and knock, and someone, who you’ll know by an email exchange or your own reconnaissance, will answer it. You need to shake hands and make eye contact and do things that aren’t always easy to do when your heart is pounding and you’re thinking that this is the most important moment of your career.

I had a little routine I did before each interview, involving music on my iPhone and a little “mindfulness” practice that helped clear the floss from my thoughts. Find something that helps you focus. I hope that my friend in the elevator did.


Christopher Garland is assistant professor of professional writing and public discourse at the University of Southern Mississippi -- a job he interviewed for at the 2014 MLA conference.


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