The 11th-Hour Reveal

At some point toward the end of a job interview, you may suddenly understand what people are really hoping to find in a candidate, writes Jesse Strycker.

April 19, 2017

You are up for an academic position, and for better or worse, your campus visit is almost over. Your final meeting of the day might be the dean of the college or school, although, in some instances, it might be the department chair. At this point, you’re either on a roll and hoping to not mess things up or you’re hoping to make up ground if any portions of your visit have not gone as well as you hoped.

You exchange pleasantries. They ask their questions, and you ask yours. At some point in the second half of the meeting, they share a side thought or comment, and you suddenly know what they might really be looking for in the candidate for the job you’re trying your best to be offered. Welcome to the 11th-hour reveal.

If you’ve ever served on a search committee, you know that there a number of stakeholders you’re answering to, as well other factors at play -- such as why there is an opening in the first place, the current composition of the department staff and the upcoming needs of the department or college. You also know that the faculty members who meet the candidates share feedback with the search committee, the search committee makes a hiring recommendation, the chair makes a hiring recommendation and the dean ultimately makes a hiring decision. Sometimes those recommendations and decisions may not entirely agree, and the 11th-hour reveal may play a role in all of this.

Here’s a more detailed example of how that could play out.

After researching the position and preparing an application package that manages to survive the different review cuts, you make it through the short-list phone or Skype interviews and are invited for a campus interview. The position description says the institution wants candidates who are able to do A, B and C, with preference given to those who can also achieve D, E and F. You plan out talking points, a teaching demonstration and research presentation to make sure you address some combination of those requirements and preferences.

You then arrive at the final meeting, and you talk about factors A through F. But then, out of the blue, the reveal occurs: “I appreciate what you’ve had to say so far, and you’ve had some great answers. It’s really clear why you’re one of the finalists. But what I’m really interested in knowing about, and what I’d like this faculty position to focus on, are X, Y and Z.”

In this moment, you’re probably going to have one of several reactions.

  • "Fantastic, those are all strengths for me. I’ve got this!"
  • "Well, those aren’t my main strengths, but I can handle this."
  • "It was a great ride, and I would have liked to work here, but I am clearly not going to be the final choice. I’ll still try to make the best of the rest of this meeting."
  • "Wait, what?" Followed by an awkward silence as you try to recover.

While it is wonderful to have the first reaction, and you hope you never have the last one, chances are you will find yourself in the middle of the spectrum. I can clearly recall that happening on three different campus visits -- smooth sailing and then the reveal. On one occasion, I actually knew I had a good chance of getting an 11th-hour reveal, and when it came, I had little doubt that I was not going to be the final choice. My intuition was proved correct a few weeks later.

On the second and third occasions, I was caught off guard, as there had been no indications of these newly revealed interests in the job postings, on the institutions’ websites or in conversations with any members of the search committees. Nor did I receive hints from faculty members with whom I had casually discussed the position at conferences. On each of those occasions, I tried to talk my way through the situations and bring in as much related information as possible from my background and abilities, but I just could never quite seem to prove myself enough to leave those meetings with much confidence. In both instances, I was not offered the jobs, and my sense of not making my case proved to be correct.

What stood out to me in reflecting on what happened is that you can never discount the fact that certain members of the hiring process have considerations that will carry more weight than others. No matter what you do, or how good a candidate you may be, if you don’t meet the needs of the 11th-hour reveal, you probably aren’t going to be successful.

All that said, you can also have a wild-card experience -- a situation in which you don’t recognize the 11th-hour reveal for what it is. I vividly remember when a dean interviewing me asked a final question that essentially addressed two main points: the potential impact of my research and how I saw it fitting in with the college as a whole. After I answered as honestly as I could, the dean paused, then started to chuckle and eventually laughed out loud for the better part of a minute. She then thanked me and sent on to my next meeting before going to dinner. I left being relatively certain that I had either given a very good answer or made a terrible fool of myself. I didn’t find out till a while later, when I received a job offer and an acknowledgment that my answer had not only been a good one, but exactly the kind of answer and thinking that had been hoped for all along.

So what about you? Have you had any 11th-hour reveals that left you feeling confident, disappointed that you’ve probably been knocked out of consideration or simply confused? Conversely, have you been on the other side of the table and had to make an 11th-hour reveal?


Jesse Strycker is an assistant professor in educational studies at Ohio University.


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