The mental game: advice for campus interviews

Last Friday I gave a short talk at the “Preparing Future Faculty” conference that the IU sociology department puts on each year. I was one of three faculty who presented on the theme of “advice from a hiring perspective” for an audience of humanities grad students, and as I usually do in such situations, I wrote out my remarks in advance. I’m not a bad extempore speaker, but I do tend to go on a bit, and writing stuff out in advance means I know I can hit my points in the allotted time. Plus I like having something I can post on Dial M.

Oh, but first: just as Cato the Elder ended every speech by saying Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”) whether or not the speech had anything to do with Carthage, I will repeat, at every possible opportunity, the phrase “Weird Studies must be subscribed to.” Weird Studies is the new podcast that J.F. Martel and I have launched. Give us a listen.

And now, my talk …

For this talk I am only talking about one particular phase of the much longer-term process of the academic job search. That phase is the little slice of time between the moment you find out you’ve been short-listed somewhere and the time you find out whether you got the job. It’s a peculiar interval of an academic’s life, intense and vivid and exhausting and worthy of contemplation all on its own. My talk today is billed as “advice from a hiring perspective,” and it’s true that I have sat on many search committees and my advice is necessarily conditioned by that experience. That said, such advice as I have to offer is drawn equally from both sides of the desk — the applicant side and the search committee side. They are two sides of the same experiential coin.

I have been on more than a dozen search committees and I’ve done seven campus interviews. I don’t know if that’s a lot or a little, but it’s what I’ve got to work with. Of the latter, four were for universities in the United States, three were in Canada, a couple of them were for jobs I got, and a couple of them were Hindenburg-like disasters. There are some real continuities in my experience of participating in campus interviews, though, and I have tried to synthesize a few bullet-points worth of advice from them.   

1. Live healthy. Treat yourself as if you’re going into training for a marathon or a prizefight or something. Imagine yourself in a Rocky movie, with your face photoshopped into all those training montages. You will likely have at least a couple of weeks between the time you find out you’ve gotten the interview to the time you fly out there. Hydrate! Get regular bedtimes and plenty of sleep! Eat clean! Work out! You’ve got to take care of yourself and get your stamina up. Campus interviews are exhausting and often go on for more than one day. The last one I did, I took meetings with the Fine Arts dean and music school chair, I taught an undergraduate survey class and lead a doctoral seminar, I did a research presentation and a meet-and-greet with students and faculty, and I was repeatedly interviewed, both formally, with the search committee, and informally, in faculty dinners and lunches. Most of these events happened on a single day, and the whole event was bracketed by long flights out and back home. Such campus visits demand a lavish expense of energy and you will almost certainly get a cold when you come back. So Rocky up.

The time that you have to prepare is all about marshaling your energy so that you can fully meet the occasion.

2. When you’re preparing for a campus interview, ask yourself some analytical questions about the place you’re visiting. You won’t be able to find the answers to all these questions, and not all of what you discover will be helpful. Some of what you learn will go in the “stuff you can’t do anything about and should therefore ignore” category (see no. 4, below). But it’s good to go in with your eyes open.

What is the culture of the department? What are its intellectual values? Ambition, amiability, focus on students, spirit of service? Is it a quiet, comfortable place, or is it lively and competitive? Does it subscribe to some ethical, methodological, or intellectual program or project? Are they more about teaching or research? The latter will inform the choices you make, beginning with the cover letter you write when you first apply — for example, the choice of whether to emphasize your teaching accomplishments or your research. Speaking of teaching, how is their curriculum structured? Which are the courses that they need help with?

Above all, what do they really want? They will very seldom tell you and often won’t even know themselves. A department might be in a building phase or it might be undergoing restructuring; it might want a strong leader or a team player; it might want a parent or a younger sibling. Is there a legacy they want to preserve? A tendency they want to resist?Sometimes the question is not what do they want but what do they not want? Organizations often hire reactively: when a long-serving and troublesome colleague retires, for instance, the department looks for someone young and easygoing.

That said, don’t go crazy with speculations about the internal politics at play in any given situation. Sitting where I am now, the speculations I see published at the musicology jobs wiki (tawdry reading!) look like the cracked-out fan theories featured in the documentary Room 237. Academics — especially humanities academics — have a weakness for a certain romantic image of themselves as masters of intrigue, code-breakers, hard-boiled detectives who know all the angles. I assure you that “hermeneutic sophistication” plus intense job anxiety usually equals paranoid fantasy.

Which leads me to my third bit of advice, which is

3.  Be cool, and avoid the uncool. Turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to negativity, and don’t put yourself in the way of it. There’s a lot of bitter, harsh people out there, and the job search brings out the bitterness and harshness in all of us. Be selective about those with whom you discuss your coming interview. By all means do a dry run job talk with your friends and seek advice from all positive and knowledgeable people. Just decide who those people are.

This advice actually ties back to my first one, “live healthy.” A lot of people benefit from purging themselves of Facebook and Twitter. Social media emit a constant pervasive background hum of negativity that will slowly drain you of your vital force. If you were in a run-and-gun video game, you would see your health bar slowly inching leftward as you read about all your friends’ babies and political opinions.

I know, it’s not cool to talk about keeping a positive outlook — academics like to think they’re too smart for optimism — but I will tell you that staying positive is huge. Ask any professional musician or athlete: success in performance is 90% mental.

4. BTW, “mental” doesn’t mean “intellectual.” Mental means: stay in your box. That’s what my distance-runner friend says. He told me that people running a marathon will get pissed off at all kinds of stuff they can’t do anything about. As one hour grinds into the next, he told me, you start perseverating over small irritants: it’s too humid, I’m chafing, whatever, stuff you can’t change. A strong mental game is needed here. “Stay in your box” means, allow yourself to care only about stuff you have control over. Everything that lies beyond the box — politics, family beef, problems in your department or field, a lumpy hotel bed, a funny vibe you’re getting from the interviewing faculty, etc. — for the purposes of the interview, none of this concerns you.

There is one subtle way that academics on the interview trail stray outside their boxes: you read too much into your interactions with the interviewing faculty. If they seem weird to you, if their manner is a little off, if you’re getting a funny vibe … well, of course you are. The people interviewing you are stressed out at a bunch of logistical and personnel problems you know nothing about. Most searches have a lot riding on them: if you’re choosing a colleague you might end up working with for twenty-five years, choose wisely. The people shepherding you around this unfamiliar campus have got a lot on their minds. And so do you. Under such circumstances, you won’t be able to make much sense of the cues you’re getting anyway. (Neither will they.) You’ll be apt to wildly over-interpret chance remarks about, say, real estate prices, and I suppose this is all mostly harmless, but still, it’s a huge distraction. You can get in your own head. And if you do that, it’s hard to be your best self.    

Now, at the beginning of this talk I spoke darkly of Hindenburg-like disasters, so herewith a few stories of things that went wrong.

It wasn’t always my fault. One faculty turned out to be running a Potemkin search: they had rigged it in favor of an inside candidate and then dragged us all through a degrading charade. On the bright side, this sort of thing happens much less often than is generally supposed on academic job wikis. At another campus visit my so-called hosts were so persistently rude I couldn’t think about anything but the secret dynamics that must have been playing out over my head — well, whatever they may have been I never did find out. In the end they didn’t hire anyone. (One of the committee fell asleep during my interview, head back, mouth open, snoring, and then they all weaseled out of taking me to dinner afterwards.)

Other times, it was definitely my fault. The scholar who invited me out to my first campus visit later became a friend, and years after I interviewed at his school he told me that job was yours to lose — and I lost it because instead of teaching a class of straightforward jazz history and theory to undergrads (you know, like, what’s a flat-fifth chord substitution?) I launched into abstract intellectual-historical musings on the poet Amiri Baraka — all very edifying, said my friend, but we’re in the trenches here. We needed you to teach the basics.

Another time, I went with the most venturesome, out-there stuff I had for my research presentation, which was also the newest and most untested, and did not get the response I was expecting from the dry run I did among friends a couple of weeks prior. In retrospect, of course my friends were going to be more willing to give me the benefit of the doubt than a bunch of strangers who were facing the most daunting and fraught and consequential choice a department can make. Big surprise they didn’t go for my homemade Fluxkit.

Sometimes it’s no-one’s fault. It might be just a bad match. Everyone always says that going on a job interview is like going on a date, because it’s completely true. Whether you are going on a date or a campus interview, the best advice is, “be yourself.” It’s also the hardest advice to follow. Sometimes your date is icky and weird, but sometimes they’re just not your type, nor you theirs. No harm done, it happens.

But it’s hard not to take it personally, so I have one last bit of advice: don’t. An interview is only a brief stage in a much longer process of job-finding. You need to take the long view and try not to get too hung up on any one job. Don’t spend a lot of time browsing real-estate listings.

But it is very hard to approach any given campus visit with that kind of equanimity. One unadvertised challenge to the mental game is the fragile little future that comes into being for those few weeks between getting on the short list and finding out whether you got the job. It’s a little embryonic reality, struggling to be born, and when it goes away we mourn it. That’s a weird little thing that happens but that they never tell you about. I don’t think there’s a way around it. To be a competitive candidate, you have to give yourself over to that imagined future self absolutely: you have to believe. Otherwise, why bother? But if you do that you are leaving yourself open to suffering. If you care about it and they take it from you, it’ll break your heart. And that’s what it always feels like: they take it from you. But they’re not doing that. It just didn’t work out.

And think about how you’ll feel when it all goes right! Which it will, unexpectedly and in its own time. I’ll leave you with that cheerful thought. The one with your name on it you never see coming.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Academia, Labor, Life. Bookmark the permalink.