Image: Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Of all the searches I have served on and all the job seekers I have vetted — as a community-college professor and as a career coach — there is one interview that stands out with excruciating clarity. It’s the one in which the candidate turned out to be lying.
The applicant had impressed us with his credentials, his warmth and humor, and his seemingly innate understanding of community-college students. Although he now lived in a different state, he revealed that he had actually attended our college many years ago, and told convincing stories of his experiences and academic triumphs throughout his freshman year here.
Charmed by the connection, and serious enough about his candidacy to pull his transcripts, imagine our shock and genuine dismay to find that his detailed anecdotes turned out to be fiction. He had, indeed, attended our college — but not for the full year and not with the 4.0 average he had claimed. In fact, he’d had no academic success on our campus; he had withdrawn from all of his classes during his first semester.
That experience sticks with me, not because of the lie so much as the missed opportunity. I have no idea why the applicant did not succeed during that first semester at our college. What I do know: If he had told the truth — whatever it was — that would have made us like him more, not less. He would have had more in common with the majority of our students, and more in common with the rest of humanity, had he told a less varnished but more accurate story including the challenges and hardships he’d faced.
Needless to say, the lie sank his candidacy. There was no coming back from such a deliberate deception.
But the incident made me think a lot about the role of integrity in interviewing, and in job searching in general. I know how difficult the academic job market is, how unfair it often seems — and how unfair it actually is. There are too few full-time, tenure-track positions and too many excellent, qualified applicants. I understand the desire to try to feed search committees what you might think they want to hear, at whatever expense. Resist that urge.
The best advice I can give you as a job candidate is to be genuine, honest, even vulnerable. In a world of hucksters and blowhards, believe it or not, authenticity sells. So what are the practical measures that can help you communicate authenticity and integrity?
Use all of your interview time. One of the biggest mistakes I see candidates make is rushing through the interview. I’ve actually had people apologize for talking too much, as if that’s not why we called them in the first place!
Now it’s true, you don’t want to ramble or talk over people. But in general, job candidates tend to cut themselves off too quickly, rather than too late. You don’t communicate much about your personality with brisk, stilted answers — unless you intend to give the impression that you are a brisk, stilted person.
I’m interviewing you because I want to get to know you: Please don’t worry that I won’t get through all of my prepared questions (I don’t care about that). I don’t mind you taking time to offer me some background or context — about your mentor, your favorite theorist, your favorite pedagogical concept — versus assuming that I already know those things (sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t).
Share plenty of stories, scenes, and examples. Stories last a lot longer than other types of expression (readers will remember my cautionary tale about “Dr. Pinocchio” longer than anything else I write in this column.) Job candidates need to prepare to be storytellers — to follow a general statement (“I learned the most about teaching from my year substituting in an inner-city middle school”) with a specific example (“For instance, I will never forget the day one of my 7th graders jumped out the window …”).
That skill comes naturally to some people, but most of us need to consciously work at it. As a writing professor, I am no doubt prejudiced about this but I believe that one of the best ways to prepare for a job interview is by completing a brief, informal, totally-just-for-you writing assignment. First, write down the major claims you will make about yourself in a job interview (“I am a highly collegial team player”). Then match each claim to a well-developed story, scene, or, example (“My proudest collaborative achievement so far is my work on Placement Task Force. Let me explain.”).
Own it — whatever “it” is. Many job seekers are emerging directly out of graduate school while others are looking for a full-time position after several semesters or years of part-time teaching. Both scenarios make it more likely that certain pedagogical decisions were out of your hands in the past: You might have been asked to use a standard textbook or syllabus, or forced to follow the scholastic whims of a certain graduate director or dean.
With a greater helping of academic freedom on the horizon, however, you are likely to be asked what textbook, teaching approach, or sequence you would use. Faced with that question — very possibly for the first time — too many job applicants either complain about the choices imposed on them (understandable, but backward-thinking) or ascribe all their decision-making power to someone else (“When I TA’d for Famous Professor X, he told me …”). If you’ve been under the thumb of someone else, forget about that in the interview and instead talk about what you would prefer to do, given the freedom. Take ownership over your pedagogical decisions (“I was trained as a strict constructivist, but honestly, I believe in taking a more mixed approach”), for the sake of the future, and not the past.
Self-reflect. Few teachers get everything right, every time, the first time. Your interview will probably include some iteration of the question: “Describe a time when something in your classroom didn’t go quite right, and what you did to correct that.” Prepare a story, scene, or example that illustrates such an instance.
To err is human, to self-reflect, divine. I am far more likely to trust candidates who understand something about course-correction than ones who profess total confidence and competence in every anecdote they offer. Being willing to critically examine your own mistakes and strategize changes for next time is possibly the biggest key to long-term professional development and improvement — not to mention being critical for illustrating your integrity in an interview.
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