Job Market Trick or Treat

It's a great day to think about the interview questions that most terrify you, write Cheryl Reed and Dawn M. Formo.

October 31, 2011

It's October, the time the spooks and goblins creep out from the deepest parts of our psyches, and we love to scare ourselves with dark thoughts, worst-case scenarios, and imagined encounters with evil guardians of the netherworld. You've shaken out your Voldemort costume, bought the candy corn, queued the Stephen King classics in Netflix, and practiced your cackle. Now’s the time to face the real monster under your bed, the thought that one or more of those applications you've been sending out could result in a face-to-face Q&A about what you’ve been up to the past few years. What to do if lightning strikes and you realize, in a moment of euphoria and terror, that, It’s alive! It’s alive!?  

Well, aside from encouraging you not to run blindly into a pitch-black basement to get away from the axe murderer who just called you from inside the house!, we have a few suggestions. The next two months will be a waiting game — use them.

Now, if you're the fearless sort who feels exhilarated at the prospect of dressing up and talking about yourself to a captive audience, don’t scoff. Your part of the waiting game is remembering who you are … in soundbites. Your best accomplishments may well have become so part of your identity that you feel as if they are stamped indelibly on your forehead. They aren't. The classic deer-in-the-headlights question in this genre is, "So, tell us about your dissertation!" -- in effect, asking you to condense five or more years of intense focus, revelation, and self-denial into a few pithy phrases. Then, too, your credentials may be so commonplace in your circle that you’ve forgotten how to talk about them except in shorthand — or at all. Cheryl once forgot to mention her Ph.D. in response to the usual "Tell us about your background and experience," until she glanced at her notes. And you should be ready for the "I haven’t looked at your materials" — "How does your research fit your field?" sort of thing. Practice articulating what you hope to talk about just as much as things you think will trip you up.

That said, if you’re like most people, you have things you'd rather not talk about. There are awkward topics ("Why is there a yearlong break in your teaching?") and then there are just downright scary ones ("What frustrates you the most about teaching?"). The questions that scare you will be obvious and idiosyncratic. ("How did you like working with Prof X [a big name in your field, whom you refer to privately as the source of all evil]?" "Why are you leaving your current institution?") It may even be something seemingly tame, like, "Why do you want to work here?" or "How would you feel teaching non-native speakers?" You’ll know the questions you need to prepare for, because you will experience that familiar clenched gut and the giddy sensation that all blood has drained from your body, leaving you lightheaded and brainless, as you imagine answering it. That’s what to focus on.

Here’s a little secret: Few hiring committees try to make the exchange of information uncomfortable. In fact, most go out of their way — even serving Perrier and snacks — to make the interview the least awkward it can be for all involved. But the very nature of being questioned about your thought processes and predilections when the outcome really matters can make the best of us babble. We'll tell you right now there are logical, professional reasons for all your experiences, even the ones you hope they’ll forget to ask about. ("Won't you miss New York?" "Are you sure you’ll be happy teaching?") You just need to find them and articulate them. Better to do that now, in the quiet of your own space and in reach of the comfort food of your choice, than in a conference hall when a search committee member blithely (and unintentionally) puts a stake through your heart. ("Why didn’t you get tenure?")

To help here, check out one of those business guides to interviewing that list questions such as, "Tell us about a time you failed," or "How do you get along with people who disagree with you?" and imagine responding with wit and charm. Use this model to create tough questions from each skill or duty listed in the job announcement -- the more uncomfortably phrased, the better. Then, answer them, in several different ways. Make bullet lists of key points. Cluster them by theme. Remix disparate points in inventive ways. Practice saying them until they roll off your tongue conversationally, even when your brain has disengaged through fear or that distracting necklace one of the committee members is wearing.

If this sounds obsessive, it is. But it’s also very real. We recall one astounding Job Search webinar in which we invited participants to engage in practice interviews online — completely anonymous and nonbinding. They could have told us anything and we would’ve run with it. After all, they were just names on a screen. We typed in our first, completely innocuous, question — "What are your teaching interests?" -- and waited for a response. Crickets. No contact from the other side. The participants — all from competitive, hard-driving universities — apparently found it excruciating to "out" themselves. Everyone heard skeletons rattling in their personal closets. And all we wanted was to help them get jobs.

Stephen King once wrote that people watch horror movies to, among other things, "dare the nightmare." When we watch others (or imagine ourselves) facing worst-case scenarios, we realize a few things. For one thing, we’re quite normal — even appealing (and if you’ve gotten a callback, you are being pursued, but in a good way).  For another, even the ultimate scary question, "What if I don’t get any callbacks at all?" isn't so daunting once you’ve faced it down with good, logical responses and a few concrete strategies.

Telling ourselves scary stories is just what we do when we are relegated to waiting for feedback on something that is vitally important to us. We can stuff the very normal, human angst down with all the candy corn, put on a wax candy smile, and trust ourselves to wing it when we step into the interview, or we can make what we fear work for us.  So, cue the horror movies and revel in the mood of the season. Spend the next month or so thinking through all the questions you hope you never hear. And then answer them.


Cheryl Reed, who teaches at San Diego Miramar College, and Dawn M. Formo, who teaches at California State University at San Marcos, are the co-authors of Job Search in Academe: How to Get the Position You Deserve (Stylus).


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