Cars, Dinners, Bathroom Breaks, and Other Awkward Moments

I would almost say that in addition to rehearsing interview answers, you should also rehearse eating dinner and interviewing, sitting in a bathroom stall and finishing a conversation, or riding in a car and attempting to maintain an intelligent discussion with a complete stranger while, at the same time, traveling through a town you have never been to. For me, dinner tables and cars (and yes, bathroom stalls) are confessional and contemplative spaces.  I will muse about things in a car that I would never think of anywhere else. I will reveal my innermost fears while poking at a spinach salad. I will hum the Sponge Bob theme song in the stall. I will sigh and make mindless comments about the size of a ditch while gazing out the car window. I will also worry about eye contact, crumbs, indiscrete noises, tooth debris, and exhaustion.

I have a post on car rides, bathroom breaks, and dinners because these are the moments when you might let your guard down and forget you are being interviewed. But you are being interviewed every second of your campus visit. It’s not that search committees or department faculty consciously think about catching you off guard; it’s just that they will remember anything you say or do that had significance for them as they rank the candidates. Possibly sexist or racist comments, asides about their program or colleagues —  even how much you ate, how engaged you were, how polite you were, whether you started conversations or waited to be asked questions — are mentally noted. Faculty may let their guards down, too, and ask you question they shouldn’t, like if you have children or plan to, whether you have a partner, what your partner does for a living, what ethnicity you are, etc.

Also important to remember is that while department faculty and search committees can become great friends down the road if you get the job, don’t instantly think that you made great friends at the campus visit and so they owe you anything. When I was on a search committee I genuinely liked several candidates we interviewed and could imagine myself having a great time getting to know them professionally, and that was important. Yet they and I both needed to remember that that’s only part of the equation. So, don’t take it personally if you were turned down for a job when you thought you had made some instant friends. And don’t hesitate to keep in touch with those contacts if you genuinely were interested in one another’s research or teaching.

One last comment. As far as conversation goes, I always feared that car rides and meals would “use up” all the questions I had prepared for later. After my first campus visit, though, I learned a valuable lesson: first, it’s OK to repeat questions to different groups! And second, I compiled separate questions for car rides and for those interviews that would take place when not in motion, such as at a conference table. Basically, I had questions about the community, cultural events, social stuff to ask in more casual environments and more job-centered questions to ask during the formal interviews. I also learned how to “plant” certain information during car rides and dinners that I hoped would surface during another part of the day’s activities. One of the happiest moments of my life was when, during the Q & A after my research talk, my “driver” asked me a question about a topic I had told mentioned during the car ride.