Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Interviewing at the AHA: Some General Tips

I have now had two readers ask me to do a post or two about interviewing at the American Historical Association annual meeting. I was unsure if I was really qualified to do this kind of thing, but then my wife reminded me that I have had many, many AHA interviews over the years and might have something worthwhile to say on the subject. I have had interviews at research universities, non Ph.D-granting state schools, liberal arts colleges, and church-related colleges. I have advanced to on-campus interviews in every institutional category and I have not advanced to on-campus interviews in every institutional category. I don't say this to brag, but I do feel that I might be able to offer some advice about interviewing. In addition, I have sat on the "other side of the table" as an AHA interviewer.

I thought I would break this up into several posts. This post will focus on general tips for interviewing. The second post will focus on interviewing for a job at a research university. The third post will deal with interviewing for a job at a teaching college. The fourth post will deal with interviewing for a job at a church-related college, with particular emphasis on evangelical colleges. Hopefully I can complete this series before the AHA meets on January 7th in San Diego. I will do my best.

When it comes to general tips about interviewing, I would direct my readers to Ari Kelman's post at Edge of the American West. It is outstanding-- one of the best things I have read on the subject.

After you get the exciting phone call (or e-mail) inviting you to interview at the AHA, send an e-mail to the head of the search committee with some general questions. (Assuming that they did not already give you this information during the initial contact). You can tell a lot about the department based on the level of professionalism displayed by the head of the search. A good search committee chairperson should answer your questions quickly and thoroughly. Ask which members of the department will be conducting the interview. Ask how long the interview will be. Where will the interview take place? Will it be in a hotel suite or at the job center (affectionately known as the "meat market")? A good search committee chair will leave the door open for you to contact him/her with any additional questions that may arise between the initial contact and the AHA interview. Don't hesitate to take advantage of such offers, but don't appear too needy.

Once you find out who will be doing the interview, start researching. By this point you should have already familiarized yourself with the department web site, but now you want to go a bit deeper. Find out as much as you can about the people who will be seated on the other side of the table. What courses do they teach? (You do not want to propose a course that gets too close to the "turf" of another professor in the department). What are their research interests? (You may want to mention how your work has some theoretical connections to the work of a particular interviewer). All of this stuff is pretty straightforward and most good candidates do not need to be told any of this, but you might be surprised to learn just how many people come to an interview unprepared.

If you can help it, do not arrive at the conference on the day of the interview. You need time to relax in the hotel room, gather your thoughts, recover from jet lag, and get a good night's sleep. Perhaps you may want to catch a session or wander through the book exhibit. I usually spend most of the night before an interview in the hotel room. I order room service (be sure to eat healthy--if sugar makes you dreary, as it does me, don't order desert!), practice my responses to basic questions about teaching and research, and do some last minute research about the department and the interviewers. (If you have to pay $9.95 for Internet access, you may want to consider biting the bullet). I have occasionally gone outside to get some fresh air. A short walk in the general vicinity of the hotel does wonders for clearing the mind. While I know that many like to use the AHA to network and party with friends, the night before the interview is not the time to do this.

While I realize that the AHA offers an opportunity to get a hotel room at a reduced conference rate in a major American city, I am not sure it is a good idea to bring your family with you to the conference, especially if you have kids. You don't need these kinds of extra distractions and worries.

As soon as you arrive at your hotel and after you have unpacked, get a quick "lay of the land." Are you staying in the main conference hotel? Is the job center in your hotel? In the past I have literally walked from my room to the job center so I know exactly where I am going on the day of the interview. Don't underestimate the power of knowing where you are going. It is a great stress-reliever and one less thing to worry about.

I break out a nice suit for the interview. A tie is optional--it all depends on your personal sense of style. (Perhaps a female reader can weigh in with advice on what women should wear to an interview). I make sure all of my clothes are pressed and "ready to go" the night before. I would also recommend getting a haircut before the conference.

The entire interview will revolve around questions related to two themes: teaching and research. (A third theme--institutional fit--will be an important part of interviews with church-related schools. I will comment on this in a later post). How much time the interviewers spend on these themes will depend on the nature of the institution. Again, more on this in future posts.

Try your best to be relaxed during the interview, but not too relaxed. The committee needs to see that you are taking this interview seriously. Sit up straight, shake hands with all the members of the committee, and be sure to look them in the eye. You want to come across as serious, but you also want to smile. Feel free to laugh if you think something that one of the interviewers said is funny. Remember, the committee is not only looking for a good scholar and teacher, they are also looking for a future colleague. They are imagining popping their head into your office for some friendly conversation. Some of these things cannot be taught. Some people have it, some don't.

If you have not already sent the search committee copies of syllabi or scholarly works, bring them with you. When you talk about your research, pull out a copy of an article for each member of the committee and give it to them. As you talk about potential courses, provide them with a sample syllabi. Make sure you have plenty of c.v.'s with you. If your c.v. has changed significantly since you originally applied for the job, make sure that you give the committee an updated version. Having said this, try not to overwhelm the committee with too much paperwork. Save the course evaluations and statement of teaching philosophy. You should have already sent these when you applied.

Search committees, especially those from teaching college or small colleges, want to know that you are interested in the job. Make sure you come across as someone who would be eager to work at the given institution. If you have experience with this kind of institution or might connect in a unique way with the student body, feel free to bring this up. For example, if the school attracts a lot of working-class or first-generation college students and you were raised in a working-class family or were a first-generation college student, you should look for a chance to mention this.

When you leave the interview, make sure you are clear on the "timetable." When will you hear back from them with a decision? A good search committee will tell you this without you having to ask.

When the interview is finished, and this is your last interview, go have fun. If you have more interviews, go back and prepare for the next one. If you have more than one interview, your last one will probably be the best. You will learn from your previous mistakes and your answers to basic questions will be sharper.

As soon as you get home, send a thank-you note to the chair of the search committee. (You may also want to send one to the other members of the committee as well). I like to send a "snail-mail" note rather than an e-mail. It is a nice touch.

Stay tuned for our next installment: Interviewing with the research university.

3 comments:

Heather Munro Prescott said...

I'm going to disagree with the recommendation about ties for men -- going without one is too casual. If you don't know how to tie one, have the concierge help you, or at least get a clip on. In addition to getting a haircut, make sure any facial hair is neatly trimmed, and remove earrings (sorry there are still some conservative folks out there who think this is unacceptable.)

As for women -- there are more options but aim towards the more conservative end of stylish. If you wear slacks, make sure they are part of a pants suit. Skirts or dresses should also be accompanied by a jacket to look more put together.

I shouldn't have to mention this, but since I've seen this at the convention, avoid any skirts or dresses cut above the knee and tops that or too clingy and/or cut too low in the neckline. Wear opaque hose with skirts and dresses. Limit yourself to one set of earrings -- no facial jewelry!

John Fea said...

Thanks Heather!!

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