What Nobody Tells You About the Academic Job Interview
By Rachel W. Gammons
Finally landing your first academic job interview is a glorious and terrifying experience. On the one hand, you are relieved and excited. After months of applications, somebody finally wants to talk to you about an actual paid position. You are awesome! You will have access to luxurious items like retirement plans and paid holidays! Moments like these are a rare form of magic; there are but a few times in your life when an objective third-party is going to acknowledge that you have done-it-good and this is one of them. Soak it in, my brothers and sisters in arms. Take as many minutes as you can possibly spare and appreciate that of the dozens of applicants, you are one of the chosen. Then, prepare to cowboy up because it is about to get real.
From the ashes of your joy, the enormity of the task before you will arise. You will become a scary person obsessed with a phone interview that feels uncomfortably like the culmination of everything you have ever worked for in your entire life. You will get way ahead of yourself and start researching the price of apartments in the town in which the college/university that you haven’t even interviewed for yet is located. But you know what? It’s fine. There are plenty of things that you need to tackle right now and the crazy train that you have just hopped on is not one of them. Let it go. Embrace the weird.
At this point, you will probably have a week or two remaining before your phone interview. The phone inquiry will then followed by a week or two of anxiety and, if you are lucky, an invitation to visit campus for the in-person interview. There are many fantastic resources that can help you get prepared for the interview process. Hiring Librarians is one of these. Hack Library School also has some beautifully written words of wisdom. If you enjoy the hearty reassurance of the printed text, I recommend Teresa Neely’s How to Stay Afloat in the Academic Library Job Pool, which is full of helpful information. These are just a few of the many resources that have covered the academic job search process ably and accurately. Rather than duplicating their efforts, I have tried to focus on the things you can’t Google; the simple, practical, tangible bits of advice that I wish I had gotten my first time out. The little things that will, if nothing else, at least make you feel a bit more confident.
- Your friends/family/non-librarian colleagues are not going to understand. You have entered the Hunger Games of job interviews and you alone know what you are facing. How do you explain a two-tier interview process with a candidate dinner, presentation, and 8 hours of on-campus meetings? It’s crazy. Take solace in the small community of people who get what you are going through and leave the muggles be; they don’t need to be drawn into our dark and twisted world. Does this mean you should ignore your friends and family? Of course not. But don’t expect them to intrinsically appreciate why this is more stressful than anything else you have ever done in your entire life evereverever.
- Pack for the on-campus interview in a small, professional, non-embarrassing suitcase. Here is a secret nobody tells you: when you check out of your hotel the morning of the on-campus visit, you have to bring your suitcase with you to the interview. Maybe the search committee member picking you up the morning of the interview will be kind enough to let you leave your suitcase in his/her car. Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky few with a rental car. More likely, you will have to carry your luggage through the library and leave it in someone’s office until the end of the day, at which point you will carry it back through the library to a second waiting vehicle. Do you want to take that gamble with your hot pink gym bag? Play it safe and pack in something sensible and discrete. It is just not worth the risk.
- Ladies, you do not need to wear heels to the candidate dinner. Here’s a lesson learned the hard way. Chances are, the search committee will be coming from work and will, as a result, be wearing whatever they wore to work that day. Depending on the institutional culture, this can range from jeans to business casual. So what should you wear? Opinions on this topic will vary, but here is my advice: choose an outfit that makes you feel confident. It is fine to wear pants, but jeans are not appropriate. A nice pair of ballet flats, boots, or tasteful sandals (depending on climate) are perfectly acceptable forms of footwear. No t-shirts, peasant tops, sleeveless shirts, or short skirts. Regardless of what you choose, you will probably feel overdressed. It’s OK! You look amazing. Everybody wishes they were you.
- Treat the on-campus visit like an intense camping trip. You should have all the essentials for survival packed on your person and be prepared to demonstrate feats of amazing strength and agility at a moment’s notice. But really. Here are a few of the items I recommend having on hand. Preferably in a work-appropriate carryall (which goes for the fellows as well - a tasteful messenger/laptop bag goes a long way on days like these):
- Headache medicine of choice. Pick your poison. It’s going to be a long day and you can’t afford to be a grump when the inevitable afternoon headache sets in.
- Gum/mints. In addition to being considerate of those in close proximity to your face, it also helps with the awkward dry mouth sensation happens that comes along with being nervous.
- Extra copies of everything. Your CV, your cover letter, the job ad, your references, your presentation notes. All of it. You may not need them, but then again – maybe you will!
- If you wear contacts, bring your backup glasses. Do you really want to poke yourself in the eye and spend the rest of the day in a state of vertigo? It’s too scary to even think about.
- Something to take notes on / collect papers in. You will get many papers. Campus maps, insurance information, employee benefits, promotional material. Be prepared to carry home a small tree worth of printed information.
- [Ladies] An extra pair of flats. This is for the campus tour, particularly if it is a large campus with a fondness for hills. If you do elect to change shoes, please for the love of everything holy to librarianship, discretely excuse yourself to the restroom to pull the switcheroo.
- The interview with the search committee can be overwhelming. For some reason, no one ever mentions that when you get to the interview it will consist of a group of people reading questions round-robin style off an identical sheet of paper and furiously taking notes on your every response. It is not that the questions themselves are overly stressful (they will probably resemble questions from the the phone interview), but being interrogated by three to six people at once is uncomfortable. Just be prepared.
- Do not waste all of your great questions on the morning meetings. On-campus interviews are long. You will meet with a lot of people and each one of them will conclude by asking if you have any questions. You will probably develop additional questions as the day goes on, but keep a few questions in your back pocket just in case. There will be plenty of time to ask them. I promise.
- On a similar note, reserve some small talk for the ride back to the airport. If your institution has arranged for someone to drive you back to the airport, they are doing you a kindness. Try to appreciate it. They know it has been a long day and that you are tired. They also know that you are in a city that you have probably never been in before and that you have no idea how to get back to the airport. After hours and hours of travel and interviews, it can be difficult to pull 35 more minutes of pleasantries from the depths of your very exhausted soul. But you must. Be brave, candidates. Only the strong survive.
- Everyone wants you to succeed. If a search committee brings you to campus, they have a vested interest in your success. Quite literally, in the sense that they have probably supported your visit financially, but also in that they have conducted a nationwide search to try to find the most amazing person ever and you have made the final cut. If nothing else, when you get up to do your presentation or face the firing line of questions from the search committee, remember that no one is rooting for you to fail. Be the rockstar you were born to be!
Rachel Gammons is the Learning Design Librarian at Millersville University. She can be reached at Rachel.firstname.lastname@example.org