It’s the time of year when I start hearing horror stories from job-seekers about how badly they did in preliminary or on-campus interviews. Usually their stories detail how they knocked it out of the park until one particular question, and then everything went to hell.
I know from experience. For instance, last year during an on-campus interview, I met early in the day with the search committee. I felt pretty comfortable with the committee members (in part because I knew some of them and in part because I wasn’t yet convinced it was the right job for me — admittedly, a laissez faire attitude only available to the already jobbed). Until, that is, someone asked me a question about teaching a particular course that I had no good answer for. Just blanked. It was a course I’d never taught before, hoped I would never have to teach, and my jumbled answer showed every bit of that digging-myself-out-of-a-hole feeling. The search committee handled my profound dumbness with aplomb, which I appreciated immensely. Suddenly, I really wanted that job, just as I had let it slip out of reach. The rest of the day, I just tried to be myself and had a blast doing it, knowing that they’d never call me with an offer. The day after I got home from the visit, they called with an offer. Huh.
These "ruined it" moments don't always end up with job offers, of course. For nearly a decade, I've told scores of graduate students about That One preliminary interview with a Big Ten university and how I bombed it so badly that I nearly left in the middle of it. This particular university would have been a great score for me, but it also never felt like a fit. Still, I felt obligated to apply and try my luck. When I got the interview, I was shocked and chalked it up to the close ties one of my mentors had to the program and people on the interview committee. Maybe they were interviewing me out of obligation, I thought. (In retrospect, I realize now how coveted those preliminary interview slots are, and that a college would never waste time doing someone a favor. But as a graduate student, I didn't have that perspective.)
The interview was a longer one for my field, 45 minutes, which made me nervous, and it didn't help that I managed to spill coffee on myself as I was entering the hotel suite in which it took place. (Note to self: Don't carry coffee into an interview!) I sat and smiled and answered a series of questions about my still-drafty dissertation that included one I wasn't expecting: Why don't you use X's work in your dissertation? I should have expected this question, and there are several ways to answer this through honesty, deflection, or -- as I did -- sticking one's foot in one's mouth. I didn't like X's work (mostly because I didn't yet recognize its importance for my field), and said it wasn't applicable to my area. Someone later told me that X was the interviewer's dissertation chair. D'oh!
That could have felt like enough of a ruinous moment for me in this interview, in which the dissertation and research "grilling" (as I began to call it in the retellings) continued for 40 minutes of the 45-minute interview. Teaching was not discussed at all, which raised a pit in my stomach.
But the turn for me was the moment the same interviewer asked me, point blank, to "Define Y," which was supposedly my field, as well as a giant, octopus-like term in my field. I burst out laughing, not even knowing where to begin. Laughter is such an automated response for me that I could not contain it. At that moment, I wanted to vomit. And when I pulled myself together in the next second, I nearly excused myself to leave. I knew then that the job would never be mine, and that was O.K. because I obviously wasn't what they were looking for. Still, I kept it together enough to apologize for laughing and to tell them I wasn't sure how they wanted me to answer because I didn't understand what they were trying to get at. They graciously rephrased the question, asking me to position myself in the field (as if my laughter hadn't already done that) and I answered the question to the best of my ability. And then -- although it likely didn't occur this way because I've conflated the details over the years to tell a better story -- the interview was over. I thanked them and left.
They never called for an on-campus interview, which was of absolutely no surprise to me, and I was not sad in the least. I was more relieved to know that that interview gave me insight to myself as a scholar (and by its absence in the discussion, teacher), helped me understand fit factors even more, and gave me additional real-world practice that my mock interview had only touched upon. As I said, I've used this story for a decade to teach graduate students these same notions of fit and practice and knowing when something's right and when it's not.
And, then, exactly an decade later, I was at the hotel bar late one night, having a drink with a friend and one of my grad students who had heard me tell this story, when one of the interview committee members showed up to have a drink with us. In all honesty, the interview was so embarrassing for me that I'd forgotten this woman, who I'd since become Facebook friends with, had been on the search committee. The interview experience so haunted me (I mean, really, who LAUGHS at a serious interview question?!) that I was still embarrassed, and so I apologized to her right then. Then SHE laughed, and said she didn't remember the incident (of course: why would she? it had been 10 years! She probably hadn't even remembered it the next day, it was so inconsequential!.) And then she apologized to me.
Indeed, she explained, that they had liked my interview, but the hiring situation changed when they were all back on the ground at the university. Discussions about deans, and target hires in hot areas, and budgets, and the like. So it goes at a lot of colleges and universities. I had come to know her as an honest, sincere, likeable person, not at all the kind of scholar I'd imagined at that institution who walked through the halls quoting Derrida at you. So I was surprised by this turn of events. And my grad student rightly laughed at me, knowing how this radically changed my story. (Mentor note: Make sure you train awesome grad students who Can Handle The Truth.)
In the intervening years, I had learned to be comfortable in my own skin in an interview and to apply to places I fit well (after the hard lesson of learning what kind of fit I want). I've also learned to cut myself some slack and to remind myself that my interpretation of how well or poorly an interview went may not at all be the impression the interview committee has. If you are the right fit, and you do an excellent job, small setbacks can't keep you down. Some things are out of your control, but in the end, search committees are made of human beings. They understand emotions and nerves and even illnesses and emergencies. They've all been there themselves. That little hiccup you made may not be as bad as you think. Instead, it may have proven that you're human, too.