Don't do this in an interview
You’ll make mistakes, make sure you time them right
In my last post, I talked about how important it is to start thinking like your interviewer. This time, I’m sharing some of the things I got wrong in my first interviews. I was determined to apply only for jobs in locations where I saw myself living (mainly big cities with an international community). I’m a city person, I had already experienced rural America and I knew it was not for me. Professors had warned me against this strategy because it would significantly reduce my chances of landing a job. They did not convince me, mainly because I knew they just wanted me to get a job, regardless of where. It turns out that the “where” was very important to me. It was actually a conversation with my colleagues who were also in the job market that really pushed me to apply for more positions. Despite the amount of additional work it involved, I’m happy I did. Let me explain why.
Being on the job market is like playing Risk, there’s a great deal of strategy involved. Your goal is landing a job you like. But if you have no previous experience applying for jobs, it’s very likely that you will make mistakes in your first interviews. How do you solve that? Apply to all possible jobs, even the ones that seem less than ideal. If you get the interview, you have an opportunity to practice, to make mistakes in a low-stakes environment.
I know we all like to hear other people’s miseries, so I’m gonna share with you some mistakes I made in my first campus visits and interviews:
- Not reading the job add carefully: during the only phone interview I had (the rest were videocalls), they asked me about a very specific theory I had never heard of. The question was: “Do you know X theory? If so, how would you use it in our program?” I had never heard of that theory, so my answer was “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that theory”. They explained the theory to me and I then told them how I would apply it. After the interview, I asked everybody in my department about that theory, nobody had heard about it. Then, I got an offer for the campus visit and re-read the job ad in preparation… the theory was mentioned in the job ad 😬 I eventually got an job offer, which shows that even if you don’t know the answer to one question, you can get the job. Nevertheless, not having researched the theory before the interview was a big mistake.
- In my first campus visit, I made two big mistakes:
- I was not ready to explain why I was interested in a position that required only an M.A. when I had a Ph.D. This was one of the questions the provost asked me, but not the first one. First, he made me talk about my research, he let me develop all my future research plans (set the trap) and then he said: “but…you wouldn’t be able to do all that research here. This is not a research position, don’t you think you would feel frustrated?” He was right, I would have felt very frustrated and I did not get that job. If you are applying for a teaching position requiring only an M.A., be ready to minimize your research agenda and explain why you are not interested in research at the moment.
- I had not researched the faculty in the department thoroughly. I just focused on the professors in the committee. There was another professor who joined my job talk and lunch. While we were eating, I asked him which department he was in 🤦🏻♀️ He was one of the faculty members in the department I was interviewing for. In my defense, he was acting as the chair of a different department and that might be the reason why his name escaped me when doing my research. If you are not sure who someone is, you can ask something more vague to get an idea: “Are you working on any exciting projects at the moment?”
- Not understanding the culture: my second campus visit was in a small place in the south of the US. The first question I was asked upon getting in the car of the professor who picked me up at the ariport (I’m not exaggerating) was: “Do you see yourself living here?” I was ready for that question, especially coming from a university so close to NYC, but I was not ready to sustain that mindset. The conversation kept going and I accidentally revealed that I loved going to NYC to dance salsa. Mistake, big mistake. My interview went great, I had ideas for their program, they seemed happy with my research, but they saw I wouldn’t stay there and I was not offered that job. I am not recommending that you lie, you should never do that, but you can choose to display only the hobbies that you could do in that area, showing that you understand what your life there would be like.
Switching gears to the type of questions you should be making, I thought I would share with you advice from a seasoned professor. The chair of my former department, Prof. Marcy Schwartz, commented the following in my last post:
“the candidate needs to show interest in the people interviewing them too! Do your homework, make sure to ask a few well-informed questions (“I saw on the dept website that you offer X, please tell me more about it/how I could help with it”). And during campus visits, when there’s much more time and informal meals, etc., ask those colleagues about themselves, their work, what they’re teaching.”
You might be thinking: Cristina, these mistakes show that you didn’t prepare enough. This is probably true, but consider the following: I had six campus visits all around the US in four weeks, while the only thing I really wanted to do was finish writing my dissertation. There are certain things that will be out of your control, so if you remember just one thing from this post, make it this one: get opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. Your dream job is not the interview you want to bomb because you had no experience. Be strategic about your interviews and apply for the less ideal jobs. They could become a low-stakes situation to practice. Also, you might be pleasantly surprised by places. I actually liked the university where I got my second offer, even though it was a small place. In the meantime, learn from my mistakes and get ready to ace those interviews.