Actually, that’s an arbitrary number. I’m pretty sure that I made more mistakes than that — and I have no doubt that the people who interviewed me saw more than I remember.
But my goal is to help others who might be chasing the academic dream to…reveal…to you what I know for sure that I did wrong during my short-lived time attempting to land an elusive position as a tenure-track faculty member somewhere in Canadian academia.
I’ll probably follow that up with a post someday that tracks three things that I did — and continue to do — right, but for right now, let’s get this out of the way.
For now, in no particular order, are three things that I did wrong:
- I did all my research about institutions on-line.
I did do my research, each and every time. I looked up the department, got to know it as well as I could from profiles and publications, syllabi and accolades, student groups and its place in the larger University community.
But in one particularly memorable case, my on-line research messed me up. There was a list of all the classes that department offers – a list which included a whole bunch that I’d have been very keen to teach. But when I went into the two-day interview, I thought that I would be stepping on someone else’s toes if I talked about how I would teach those classes — after all, they were listed, so someone else was teaching them, right? So I didn’t mention them.
During the interview, I could sense that something was amiss as I nattered on about other classes I would be prepared to teach. They quietly asked, why didn’t I talk about my specialty? It was then that they revealed, I was being interviewed because the courses they were looking for me to teach had been really popular — but the professor had moved off to another University. Oops.
What I learned: call the Department if you get an interview, and ask questions about the position, why it’s open, and what kinds of things (teaching, research, collaborations) they would be looking for in particular. I would have known then what to talk about in both my research and teaching talks.
2. I got an interview at a place that I knew I couldn’t move to.
And it’s a wonderful university in a beautiful setting, with stupendous colleagues and a great teaching environment. But I have a bit of a unique family situation (we call it a farm) and as soon as the plane landed, I froze up inside. I knew that moving there would mean too much change for us. And that freeze, I’m sure, translated into my interview.
I consoled myself a little bit, thinking, I was following the ‘academic’ rule: send out lots of applications to lots of different Universities. After all, once you’ve crafted your application and send it off, we applicants (supplicants) have no idea if we’re going to get ‘the call’ or not.
One sometime-mentor explained the academic application process to me using gun terminology: you can apply for academic positions using the shotgun technique (which shoots bullets that are filled with small pellets that fly everywhere — your aim isn’t great but if you shoot enough applications out there to lots of Universities, you’ll hit something and get an interview, eventually), or the rifle technique (where you only shoot a few, very select bullets, which are crafted and aimed with extreme care, which can also yield an interview).
What I learned: only apply for the positions and at the Universities that you really want, and think you can be excited about, and actually move to. I have friends, more mobile than I, who have taken positions that they don’t want, and their unhappiness scares me. And them. I don’t think that’s a way to live life, even though that’s probably what some mentor has told you (take the position until a better one comes along). It’s up to you, but I know I can’t do it.
3. A job interview is not a soapbox.
This is the one that occasionally wakes me up at night: what if I had answered that question differently? I made it through 84 applicants, through a ‘top ten’ Skype call, down to the final three, invited on-campus for a two-day interview. I was ecstatic, excited, and crafted my research and teaching presentations with great care. I had a mentor who offered excellent advice and I knew, right up until the group interview, that I was nailing it.
But then the wheels came off my hot wheels car. It was a spectacular crash.
One of the questions was both innocuous and anything but: how, Merle, would your research (which is local-based place studies) resonate with an international audience?
This is a question that I’ve struggled with, as too often, the local (Saskatchewan, western Canada) is rather undervalued as a place to research, while ‘international’ tends to carry an aura of sophistication, of exotic.
I tossed the question back on the asker in the heat of the moment and pointed out quite clearly how we differed in the way we viewed the world. I value the local first. In fact, I was articulate and full of pride about my views.(My Mom might say that my Dad came out my mouth, but no, it was me). My response left no one in the room unclear on my position, which wasn’t — and isn’t — wrong, it was just a very different worldview than that of the world-renowned researcher who asked the question.
We were all a bit uncomfortable when I was done, once I got over the heat of my passionate response.
I’ve thought about that moment a lot, and I know what I would have done differently.
I know that people don’t remember what you say; they remember how you made them feel. I deliberately broke any sense of ‘connection’ that I had built with that room full of people, and it was the wrong place to do that. I thought I was showing passion for my work. They saw a future colleague with an agenda and a hint of acerbic temper, and they — rightly — didn’t like it.
What I learned: prepare for the hard questions, the ones that you know will ‘get your goat,’ the ones that make your back shiver and your tongue loosen. If you craft some strategies and tactics around handling those questions in advance, you’ll be more prepared. A job interview is not a soapbox. And if nothing else, you’ll be able to remind yourself that what hiring committees are really looking for is a colleague, and act accordingly.
My apologies to all of the hiring committees, and job interviews, that I went to but messed up — with faulty research, an agenda, or a simple place mismatch. You were part of my learning process, and I thank you for it.
Although I likely won’t be a University professor any time soon — farm, not moving — this post does two things for me: 1. Pass on these bits of wisdom to others, for what they’re worth, and 2. Embraces my faults and mistakes. They are part of who I am.
Slightly acerbic. Always cheering for the local. And committed to place.