Preparing for Interviews

Ellen Spertus reviews the practical issues one needs to handle before leaving.

August 5, 2011

The most strenuous part of the job search is traveling the interview circuit. The more you prepare in advance, the less stressful and more productive your trip will be.

The first thing you need to prepare for interview travel is money. You'll have to pay for dressy clothing, accessories, and travel expenses, such as airfare. You'll eventually get reimbursed for most of the travel expenses, but it won't happen overnight. I fronted over $3,000. If you don't have the money, borrow it. Some advisers have been willing to make bridge loans to students.

You can save money on clothing by starting to shop for it well in advance, keeping an eye out for sales. Consider also checking out consignment shops (high-quality used clothing stores). You should have at least two dressy outfits, because some interviews last two days. You will also need some non-grubby comfortable clothes, because a faculty member may pick you up at the airport and take you straight to dinner with other people from the department. Make sure that your clothing is practical and doesn't wrinkle too easily. Women: When you're tempted to buy a dress or skirt that is knee-length or shorter, ask yourself whether you'll feel comfortable in it sitting next to someone, climbing up stairs, getting out of a car, etc. Also, make sure your shoes are comfortable, because you will have to walk around campuses. I find Easy Spirit to be a good brand of women's shoes. Wear your whole interview outfit for the day of a practice talk. If your blouse is see-through, you'll want to find that out before the real interview. Remember that new invitations might come in while you're on the road. I had only packed one outfit suitable to wear in warm locales but got invited at the last minute for a two-day interview in Los Angeles and had to improvise.

You will also need luggage, preferably a garment bag if you're bringing a suit. If you can't borrow one, use an opaque zip-up vinyl bag, which you can buy where you bought your suit. I bought some luggage with wheels and found that very helpful, although you shouldn't fool yourself into thinking you'll never need to carry it. Don't buy luggage at a posh store. You can get it much cheaper at a discount store, such as Target, or through AAA. I got a three-piece set of Samsonite luggage for $129 and brought the tote bag and the wheeled carry-on with me. While I sometimes checked the "carry-on", particularly when it was overstuffed and couldn't fit in the overhead bin, I was glad not to have a full-sized suitcase to lug. You often have to walk quite a ways from the gate or baggage area to the rental car. If you'll be making a number of trips, make life easier for yourself by keeping a toiletry bag stocked. If you're not sure whether to pack something, ask yourself how much it weighs and how inconvenient it would be not to have it. For example, bring a nail clipper, earplugs, and extra pantyhose.

Don't necessarily bring enough reading material to last you the whole circuit, because it's easy and inexpensive to buy books and magazines as you travel. I don't recommend traveling with a bare minimum, however: bring things that will make you feel comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings, such as a copy of your favorite tape (to play in rental cars) or a stuffed animal. Consider packing an empty duffel bag, in case you accumulate more stuff as you travel, as I did.

Be sure to think about your health needs when you pack. I was glad that I brought Pepto-Bismol, which was good for the nervous stomach I had before my first talk, and Source Naturals Wellness Formula, an echinacea-based tablet that I took when I felt particularly run-down to boost my immune system (even if only by the placebo effect). If there are any infections that you are particularly prone to, you might want to bring treatment. In any case, bring information on how to contact your doctor.

You'll need accessories to go along with your spiffy dress clothes. All the briefcases I saw were very expensive (hundreds of dollars), but I found a nice-looking fake leather portfolio for about $15. I don't know if you can get away with a canvas bag from a conference. I'd advise women not to lug purses. The dress I bought was sufficiently low-cut that a scarf was a necessity, as were safety pins, which I neglected to pack. Douglas Adams claims a traveler should never be without a towel. I found a scarf even more indispensable. I draped it over my arms to prevent sunburn when taking a long walk on a Southern California campus, I knotted it over my chest when I discovered that the front of a dress was flimsy, and I used it as a belt to increase the formality of a waistless dress.

The most useful information about each place can usually be found on the Web. Print or download the home page and the pages of all the people you expect to meet, and read them on the airplane. If you're in touch with other job-seekers, you may be able to pick up gossip about places they've been (or share gossip about where you've been). If you have the chance, learn to pronounce any unusual names of people in the department you think you're likely to meet. You can do this by asking around (either someone who knows the person or knows the language the name comes from) or by calling the person's office in the middle of the night and listening to their voice mail message.

Other important information that you'll want to keep on hand:

  • All of your airline frequent flier numbers.
  • A copy of your slides in the source language (e.g., PowerPoint) and in a printable format (e.g., Postscript). You should store these on a flash drive that you bring with you and also place them in a directory you can download them from. You might also want to buy and bring a presentation clicker with a laser pointer. Make sure you've practiced with any such tools before the real talk.
  • Your passport if you might cross the U.S.-Canada border.
  • Your driver's license, for rental cars. Make sure it hasn't expired.

The most important preparation is probably emotional. In addition to figuring out what job you really want and not just what you think will impress or please others, you also have to deal with the fear of rejection. Many of us getting our Ph.D.s have never been significantly rejected academically or professionally. You will get rejected on your job search. Most places you apply won't invite you for an interview, and most of these places won't make you an offer.

Remember, if you never hear "no," you're not aiming high enough. Don't be afraid to risk rejection, and, when it comes, don't take it personally. Something that helped me keep perspective was a 1996 rejection letter from a third-rate university to Professor Richard Karp, which was posted in the mailroom at University of Washington. Karp has won a National Medal of Science (1996) and the ACM Turing Award (1995), the highest award in computer science. If even he gets rejected, I think I can handle some rejection too.


Ellen Spertus is associate professor of computer science at Mills College.


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