Interviewing for a position in academic settings generally occurs over the course of a day or a few days. Typically at least one meeting with prospective colleagues will be scheduled during a meal. Meals offer a more relaxed atmosphere for up-close conversation and interaction. However, “interview meals” can also cause stress. Your goals: 1) present yourself effectively and persuasively, without letting the meal itself become an unwanted distraction; and 2) demonstrate your poise and ease of interaction while focusing on people and discussion — not the food.
Take actions that allow you to remain engaged
Try to avoid becoming too hungry. Because meals do not always happen on schedule or when you feel hungry, be sure to have a “power bar” or two with you.
Although you might be tempted to try something new on the menu, refrain from ordering something you don’t know how to eat, or food that might be a lot spicier than what you have experienced before. This is not the time to experiment or try escargot for the first time.
Choose an item priced in the middle range of the menu offerings. You need not order the least expensive, but do not order the most expensive item. Accept menu items “as is.” Refrain from asking for substitutions or asking that ingredients be excluded.
If you choose to drink any kind of alcohol, be sure to drink slowly — and be mindful of your drinking. Have a glass of water along with your beer, wine, or mixed drink. Given the circumstances of interviewing, remember that you may be tired, possibly hungry, and perhaps nervous — all factors that have implications for consuming alcohol.
If you are interviewing in a part of the country that is new or unfamiliar to you, you might be encouraged to try the regional offerings. Do not feel pressured to try something you think you may not like. But if the local fare appeals to you and is not too unusual, try it!
As a job candidate, you will be focused on wanting to make a good impression and getting the offer. However, remember that you too are conducting an interview. Sharing a meal with prospective colleagues offers an opportunity for you to consider if you want to work with them. Here are some questions to consider:
- What is their rapport?
- Are they respectful of each other?
- Do they seem to get along well?
- Are they collegial?
These are people you might be working with closely for many years. They need not become your close friends, but you do want to have a sense of working successfully with them as colleagues.
An interview meal presents an opportunity to learn more about the institution and its culture. Watch how your potential colleagues speak about the climate and leadership of the organization or the company; or in academia, the department, college or university. Do you get the sense that people feel respected and valued by the leadership? Are they happy with and respectful of the leadership?
Good manners go a long way
Basic table manners are indispensable to any interview meal. Do not worry too much if you used the correct fork for the salad, or knife for the butter. If you want to brush up on some dining etiquette, there a number of sources available online. Focus more on good manners as they relate to communication: listening effectively while sharing your ideas; graciously interacting with others and demonstrating interest in them; and thanking the wait staff and your hosts.
And remember: an interview meal is about people and the job — not the food!
Rebecca Aanerud is assistant dean of the University of Washington Graduate School. Jerry Baldasty is vice provost and dean of the University of Washington Graduate School.