Rebecca Schuman

Author, Translator, Independent Scholar at self-employed

The Academic Apostate’s Guide to Interviewing

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Image: iStock

The interview invitation came at the exact moment I had given up.

It was the third week of December, and I had not heard a peep from the handful of search committees on the receiving end of my unlikely return to the academic job market. For the most part, I went about my life without giving much thought to the yawning abyss where my dossiers now lived. I didn’t have time to throw myself the ginormous pity party to which I have felt monumentally entitled in previous years. I have a freelance career and a little kid now, and I wish I had time to sob in the damn shower because that would mean I had the time to shower.

Nevertheless, I persisted. And as many of you know, the way to induce abject self-hatred during the academic hiring cycle is easy: Just look at the job wikis! So I did, and they confirmed what I suspected: Whatever made me underwhelming to search committees when I was a sycophantic little postdoc in 2013 also made me underwhelming as an eclectic alt-academic in 2018. It wasn’t worth ruminating about, so I tried my best to keep my chin up — harrumphed that it was their loss this time; I mean it! — and went on with my day.

So when that email did arrive, at about 7:30 p.m. on a Friday — an invite to a first-round interview for a tenure-track job at Chill SLAC, a wonderful small college with a vacancy in exactly my specialty — the first thing I did was laugh. A lot. It was the kind of giddy, uncontrollable laughter you laugh when you get into a car accident and then realize that everyone is OK. (I’ve just thwarted death! Whaaaaaaat?!? HA HA HA!) It was the laughter of a person who spent nine years training for the Olympics but never made the team, stopped training altogether, and then four years later somehow got a call to come to the trials.

Before I had time to realize that that was actually a ridiculous metaphor, and that being on the tenure track is nothing like the Olympics in any way, I was off doing what I do best: obsessively researching everything from Chill SLAC’s on-campus housing policy to the secondary sources of the as-yet-imaginary research I would undertake were I to return to academe.

I would attack this opportunity like I attacked my comprehensive exams all those years ago. After all, a first-round interview for an academic job is like a tribunal, right? A bunch of strangers lob intellectual assassination attempts at you for three quarters of an hour, and if you somehow emerge unscathed, you’ve officially vanquished them. Then, and only then, can you join their ranks. I’m pretty sure that’s how it works.

Somewhere between drafting the fourth bullet point of my fake syllabus for my made-up course on "Modernism and Digital Masculinities" (NB: It will be a good course, I swear) and lurching into the living room in a cold sweat to inform my husband that I am actually an impostor who knows nothing and should probably withdraw my candidacy immediately to save everyone the embarrassment, a realization began to dawn. Schuman, I said to myself, snap out of it! No amount of overpreparation will make interviewers like you if they don’t.

And it’s true. I remembered back to a 2012 MLA interview I had with a department at a prestigious private research university. I left that hotel suite feeling so triumphant, like I had demolished every question they asked me, and in perfect German, too. Two weeks later, when the wiki kindly informed me I hadn’t been invited for a campus interview, a grad student I knew in the department broke it to me: They had loathed my personality. (And I’d toned it down even.)

If I’d been honest with myself then (which I rarely was in those days), I didn’t even want to work in that department (it had a reputation as something of a viper’s nest; I’d have been vipered alive). I just knew I should want to work there — because after all, who wouldn’t?

So just imagine my temptation to overprepare when it came to Chill SLAC — a place where I truly do want to work. In fact, I went on the faculty job market this year for the express purpose of applying for this position. I only applied for other openings because I figured I might as well, since I’d already gone through the trouble of putting together a dossier and getting recommendation letters. But this particular job, at this small liberal-arts college, with these students, in this location? This is the one I really want.

And yet. About 12 hours before my Skype interview (happily, candidates have more options than the days when we were all forced to go into debt flying to conference interviews), I finally realized what those of you with jobs probably already knew: An interview isn’t an exam. Either these folks are going to like me or they’re not. If they do like me, they’ll be interested in my research, whether or not I choose that exact moment to go full-on deer-in-headlights and utterly biff trying to describe it in German (which is a random example I just made up and, er, definitely not something that happened in my actual interview).

If they like me, they’ll understand that I haven’t taught German in four years and I plan to spend the coming summer in Berlin to sharpen up the ol’ Sprache (and also because it is a kick-ass place for a 3-year-old to live).

And if they don’t like me? Or, less personally, if whatever I am isn’t right for whatever they are? Not only is that not the end of the world — since I already have a hard-fought independent career I essentially cobbled out of thin air — there’s also nothing I can do about it.

So I made the wackiest decision in what has essentially been an uninterrupted litany of wacky career decisions since 2013, and I did that interview as my real, authentic self. I treated the members of the search committee as if they were already my colleagues and I had nothing to prove.

As you, my best friends, are reading these very words, I will have just found out whether Chill SLAC liked me enough to invite me to campus for Round 2. But at this point, more than anything, I’m just happy I got that first call. A tenure-track interview, in my shrinking, mercilessly competitive field is nothing to hang my head about, and I’m damn proud of it — and not just for myself.

When I started this search, I wanted to see if someone like me — with a "reputation" and an eight-year-old doctorate and no institutional affiliation — could go out there as her real, authentic self and not be laughed out of the proverbial room. And I’m here to say: It’s possible. And because it’s possible, pretty much anything else is, too.

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