Preparing for MLA or Other Convention Interviews

First, be proud of yourself whether you get an interview or not! If you do receive a call or calls for interviews, prepare yourself for a fun visit to the MLA (or whichever conference your interview will be conducted at). You will be nervous and perhaps even feeling a little bitter that you didn’t get more interviews (no matter how many you get, you’ll probably still wonder what went wrong with the schools that didn’t contact you), but try to have a blast at MLA. It’s always in a big city with lots to do, and there’s a smorgasbord of interesting panels to go to if you choose to do so.

A Few Facts:

  • If you have an interview, it means that committee has already determined that you have the qualifications for the job. Now they are looking for the depth of your work and teaching, your future potential, your passion and seriousness about the field, your fit with their department.
  • Most interview committees at conventions range from a single person to groups of 8 or 10. The most common, though, is 3-4. Count on at least one having a keen interest in your research and asking the tougher theory/research questions. One might take on all the teaching questions. Major research institutions tend to send more interviewers and also open their interviews to any faculty who may be in town for the conference (sit-ins who usually don’t ask questions). Smaller schools tend to send fewer interviewers.
  • Interviews will take place either in a hotel room (sometimes a suite that feels like a living room, sometimes in a room with the bed nearby) or in the general job commons area (lots of tables set up in one large room in the convention center). Yes, it can be awkward waiting outside a hotel room and yes, you may actually have to sit on the edge of a bed (but this is rare!), but it’s still all very professional.
  • Interviews last between 20 and 45 minutes. Most are about 30 minutes. 
  • Hiring committees are in general very friendly and WANT to love you and be excited about your work. Remember that they have been sitting in a hotel room all day. They need some excitement.
  • Questions are generally divided into research and teaching. They often begin with the general question, “Tell us about your dissertation” (or book project, research interests, etc.).Teaching-focused schools may jump right into your teaching philosophy.
  • At the end, you will be asked “Do you have any questions of US?” Yes, you do. Ask 2-3 questions about their program, courses, types of students, etc. (see post on asking questions at campus visits for more examples)

Before You Receive a Phone Call

  •  Start practicing your interview strategies. I did this mainly in the car, during dinners at home, and in my head as I ran mindless errands like grocery shopping.
  • Be sure to sit for a mock interview! The most helpful 30 minutes ever. Cheryl and I will contact you with mock interview schedules later in the fall, usually the two weeks before Thanksgiving.
  • Consider having your home phone forward all calls to your cell phone, so that you are reachable at all times (especially during winter break and most especially if you’re traveling).
  • Figure out exactly what you want to wear for interviews, and choose at least 2 wardrobes in case you have interviews on 2 different days.  Remember, when choosing your “outfit,” that the committee has been sequestered in a hotel room all day. How can you look professional but make yourself visually memorable, so that the committee can match a face to the paperwork later?
  • Register for MLA if you can afford it (see #8 under “When You Receive the Phone Call for why it is a good idea to register) and, yes, make travel arrangements. This year it will be very expensive, since it’s in San Francisco. It’s a sad fact that you may have to make and cancel a flight, but it’s a chance you have to take. You can wait it out as long as possible, but keep an eye on those airfares so that you don’t end up paying $500.00 for a flight that could have cost $160.00.
  • Find a roommate for the hotel! My first year on the market I roomed with three other friends and we had a blast. 

 When You Receive the Phone Call

  1. Thank the caller and maintain a professional composure: I don’t recommend squealing with excitement and relief, nor do I recommend answering with an “of course” kind of attitude, like you were expecting their call.
  2. If you have a choice for your interview time, think about when you are at your best. Are you a morning person? An afternoon person? I recommend avoiding appointments immediately before the lunch hour and late in the afternoon when the committee is hungry or tired.
  3. Click into business mode and ask the important questions if they don’t volunteer all the information up front (but give them a chance to speak before interrupting to ask questions).  What are the important questions? When, where, with whom, and is there anything you’d like me to do or bring. You have the right to inquire about who will be interviewing you, if they don’t tell you up front, but ask tactfully. If they’re really cool, they might tell you a few questions to expect. I personally wouldn’t ask about the actual questions, though I have heard of candidates who did so carefully and were happy they did. As a former chair of a search committee, I know that we as a committee had to decide if we would share questions and, if so, we had to share those questions with every candidate. So if a committee doesn’t tell you, it’s probably not that they’re being secretive but that human resources requires all applicants receive identical information. 
  4. Speak specifically: instead of asking, “Do you want me to bring anything?” ask, “Would you like me to bring my philosophy of teaching statement? (or sample syllabi, research program, etc.)”
  5. Also ask if they would like to have a number they can reach you at if anything should change, like the time or hotel.  Most will ask for this anyway, and some will say they don’t need it. Offer it no matter what (your cell phone # is best, if you can) because it shows you’re accommodating and organized.
  6. At the end of the conversation, confirm your date, time, hotel, and the person’s name under which the hotel room will be reserved. Sometimes they won’t know yet and they’ll call or e-mail you later.  Sometimes you will have to seek that information out later. At the MLA, there is a Job Center located in the main conference hotel. There will be a bulletin board where you can receive messages. You must be registered for MLA in order to enter this room, however, which is the one bad thing about not registering.
  7. When you get off the phone, run, run like the wind to your computer! This is where your research will really pay off. I found that the committees expected me to know their list of courses in particular, so really familiarize yourself with what they teach – and exactly what they call it. Saying how great you are at teaching “Writing About Literature” when their first-year composition course is actually called “First-Year Writing I” will not impress them. For a research institution, of course make sure that you know the faculty in and near your field as well as those who will be interviewing you, if you have that information.  If an interviewer has a passion for Dickinson, for example, you can decide whether to mention her (if you are passionate about her poetry also and can think of some cool ways to bring her into an answer) or to avoid mentioning her (if you don’t feel comfortable speaking about her poetry).