Saturday, January 12, 2013

Convention interviews: don't overthink it

Since the portion of my last post that discusses MLA interviews from the perspective of a hiring committee seems to have sparked a lot of interest among those currently on the market, I've been thinking about whether I have more to say that doesn't merely duplicate the excellent series Bardiac has been running (see especially here, here, here, here and here). Now that first-round interviews are over, I guess my greatest piece of additional advice is: don't overthink it.

If you were polite and professional, and if you communicated your research interests and teaching experience effectively, you did your part. If someone on the committee looked bored or disengaged, it might be that he had a pet interest you weren't speaking to--and you can't have known or have changed that. But it could also mean that you had already sold yourself effectively enough that in the midst of a long day he just zoned out. Either way, it's not worth worrying about.

The thing is, in order to get an MLA interview, a candidate has to be very strong on paper. (Which isn't to say that there aren't strong candidates who don't get interviewed, because of course there are. However, most departments have a coherent standard for who makes that cut.) In the MLA interview, we're trying to go beyond what's on paper, to see if a candidate can speak engagingly and persuasively about both research and teaching. We mostly ask soft-ball questions that encourage candidates to say more about and reflect more deeply on those subjects, to prove what they know and what they've done; we're not trying to catch anybody out, just to see how they think.

But as I mentioned in my last post, it's amazing how much even those relatively casual conversations reveal. Our top and bottom third were immediately apparent. There were also a few surprises: some people I was totally in love with from their applications were duds in person. Others about whom I was rather dubious did stunningly well. This didn't happen often, but enough to make me humble about what an application alone can predict.

At the end of each day of interviews, we ranked the candidates, talking through and writing up the reasons for our rankings. At the end of all the interviews, we re-ranked them. (We were surprisingly unanimous about most of them, with most of the variation coming in our rankings of the candidates who fell into the middle third). When we got back to campus we typed up a list of our rankings, with a brief explanation next to each candidate, and sent it to the Dean and to Human Resources, who will give us approval to bring candidates to campus. Other departments and institutions have slightly different practices, but usually the rankings are made very soon after the interviews are over and don't change unless the department needs to go much beyond its top five.

All of this means that, if you're a candidate, there's really nothing you can do right now but wait. You can send thank-you emails or cards, you can ask the chair about the status of the search if you haven't heard by a given deadline, but none of what you do now matters. You will not improve your chances by sending a thank-you note, or hurt them by not sending one. And unless you're barraging the chair with emails demanding to know what's going on???, a polite query every two weeks will not make anyone think badly of you.

If you don't hear back for a long time, there are a couple of possibilities. One is that there are internal problems: the department is divided about the search for some reason, or the funding for the line has been imperiled, or something of that nature. The second is that you're not one of the top two or three candidates, but the committee doesn't want you to think you're out of the running. Ideally, a committee will tell you as much, but not often. (I appreciated the search chair, back in the day, who told me they only had funding to bring two candidates to campus initially, but they hoped I was willing to be kept on a list of alternates; I have no way of knowing whether I was their third choice or their eighth, but it was nice to know what was going on and to feel they still regarded me as desirable.)

Above all, it's almost never personal. We had amazing applicants whom we declined to interview because their specializations weren't quite the right fit. We had people we interviewed who are lower-ranked simply because they overlap too much with our current faculty, and hence wouldn't bring as much that's new and necessary. And though my department is often lucky enough to hire one of our top three candidates, we've also gone to numbers four and five and six (who sometimes turn out to give better campus visits than their more highly-ranked competitors did). We've never yet regretted a hire, regardless of how they were ranked initially.

It's a messy, inefficient, and stressful process, and candidates have it hard. I wish I could tell you that everyone doing good work will eventually get a job--but we all know that's not true. On the other hand, not getting a job (or not getting a job this season, or not getting the job you wanted), is absolutely not a sign that you did anything wrong, or that you could have done anything differently. Don't worry about what happened in that interview room. Spend the next few weeks being good to yourself. You're more than the sum of your interviews.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

This all resonates with my experience, as well. And when my department was completely free to run its own searches, this was also true: "We've never yet regretted a hire, regardless of how they were ranked initially." I can think of two instances when we did regret a hire, and in both cases, there was decanal-level influence at work, not in terms of whom to hire but at the point of drafting the ad, when The Admin wanted more of Something in Particular and the department didn't agree but wasn't willing to tell the dean to take a hike for fear of never again getting funding for the lines we did think we needed. So that's another thing that may not be personal. It also doesn't have to indicate long-term disfunction in a department or friction between the department and dean, just some admin-type fad or pressure from even higher up for something or other.

EngLitProf said...

Comment on this post from a veteran of 50 MLA interviews: I agree, I agree, and I agree.

Susan said...

I think the biggest revelation on the hiring end is that there are terrific candidates who don't make our short list for fairly idiosyncratic reasons. And every search I've been involved with the middle is fuzzy, because it comes down to apples and oranges...

Bardiac said...

This is a great post, and very helpful.

You're so right that some people really come through well in interviews. And sometimes people don't. I thought your point about someone being too close to a person already in the department was important, too. I think healthy departments will try to find people who add something different.

Doctor Cleveland said...

And don't tell yourself that it's all in your control. Committees interview three or four times as many people at MLA as they have funds to fly back to campus. So good candidates who have good interviews can still not get the flyback.

This isn't all on you. And lots of things are going on that have nothing to do with you.

squadrato said...

Another voice in the chorus of praise and agreement. This is a great post, and absolutely, spot-on true in every paragraph.

I'm on a committee this year, and I see the exact same processes at work. I think what's particularly important for candidates to know is that "fit" is hugely important. There were some application in our pile that fit the job description, were beautifully written, and that clearly represented candidates of great accomplishment, with lots of grants and awards and kudos from the profession. Yet a few people, even in this highly-accomplished group, did not get to the interview stage, and were edged out by candidates who on paper were less accomplished, but who had a better set of interconnections with the existing faculty in our department. We want someone who can mediate between existing areas of strength and build on them for this position. Sometimes, in other searches, our priority is more to open up totally new areas of study and conversations within the department.

Finding the right person is quite an unpredictable alchemical process, in other words. Being a fantastic and interesting scholar is a requirement, yes, but it also isn't a guarantee. There were many fascinating people who applied who just were not what we need right now.

Renaissance Girl said...

What everyone here has said, and cheers for you, Flavia. The fit component is something that can't be anticipated from the front-end on the part of the candidate, and we have certainly passed by excellent applicants because they didn't quite have what we needed. (Just this year: one very, very strong candidate with compelling and potentially game-changing scholarship and good teaching didn't end up overlapping as much as we had hoped s/he would with our field of real need). there's no need to feel bad about an MLA interview: if you were there in the first place, it's because you were seen as someone who is worth talking to further.