Two ways I flubbed my first job interview

Academic jobs are hard to get (there’s an understatement), and as a result, nearly everyone has a tale to tell of failure on the academic job market. I have plenty of those tales – but today, I’ll tell just one. It’s the story of the first (academic) job interview I ever had, and how I found two different ways not to get the job.

I was in my final year of grad school, at the University of Pennsylvania (or “Penn”, which matters later). My thesis was coming along nicely, and while I knew it was something of a long shot, I started applying for faculty jobs. To my considerable surprise, I got a call to come interview at an R1 university with a highly ranked program in my discipline. I was very excited, prepared a job talk, and hopped on the train for my campus visit.

When the train arrived it was easy to figure out who, on the platform, was my host: the one dressed like an ecology professor, advancing towards me. So I offered a handshake and told him my name. There was a brief pause (which I thought nothing of at the time) and then he told me his, welcomed me, and took for a tour of the town on the way to my hotel. Let’s call my host “Dr. Smith”.

The next day Dr. Smith picked me up again and brought me to campus for my job talk. I was nervous (as I was for any talk in those days, although I shouldn’t have been). I sat in the front row while the audience arrived, and while Dr. Smith stood up to give my introduction. He began this way*:

Last year, I went down to Penn to give a seminar. While I was there, I met a grad student who really impressed me…

 “Huh,” I thought, “I wonder who he’s talking about? Laura, maybe, or Peter?” But he went on about this student for some time, talking about going to lunch with him (use of the gendered pronoun at some point ruled out some of my guesses) and being told all about his research. As Dr. Smith spoke, a feeling of exquisite horror gradually crept over me. I know you’re way ahead of me here: he was talking about me. But I had no memory whatsoever of meeting him (or even taking him to lunch), and I had blithely introduced myself to him at the train station as one does to a stranger. I felt like a proper idiot (which I was, and I’d made that pretty clear at the train station, and on the tour of the town, and probably a few more times too). This, let me assure you, is not the psychological position from which you want to launch into your job talk!

But that’s not the only way I flubbed the job interview.

The other reason I didn’t get the job – and the far more important one – is that I had no idea what an academic job interview was. I thought it was a test I needed to pass, with the faculty members I met acting as a panel of expert examiners. I’d faced many such tests in the past (my comprehensive exam, for example), and I’d been good at them. I was, therefore, totally unprepared to suck at what the job interview actually is: a conversation in which the hiring department feels you out as a peer and colleague. I wanted to convince them that my research used the correct statistical tests; but they wanted to know how I’d contribute to their students’ supervisory committees. I wanted to demonstrate my track record of planning interesting research; but they wanted to know how my future plans would complement theirs. I wanted to show them I’d read all the right papers; but they wanted to know what papers we could write together. In short: I wanted to show them I was an excellent grad student; but they wanted to know if I was prepared to be a good professor. I now understand that I was not.

Over the years since I’ve gone on many more job interviews, and I’ve gotten better. I’ve even gotten jobs – a couple of them, actually**. But I wish I’d figured all this out a lot sooner; it would have saved me a lot of trouble, and the interviewing departments even more.

If you’re on the job market, or about to be, perhaps you can learn from my failure (and from Andrew Hendry’s excellent guide to succeeding in a job interview). You should still expect to come home from some interviews without a job, of course; we nearly all do and always will. That’s not a failure. In fact, by building connections and relationships with your soon-to-be-peers, you can gain a lot interviewing for a job you don’t get. But that can only happen if you see them as your peers (and yes, it probably helps if you remember whether you’ve met your host before).

©Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) December 1, 2015

UPDATE: I just told a simple story, but this useful post treats “how to succeed in a job interview” much more comprehensively – from The Thesis Whisperer, HT Meghan Duffy

Related posts:


*^This won’t be word for word, but I think it’s pretty accurate, because (for reasons you’re about to discover) it became seared into my brain in a way that’s hard to dislodge.

**^My first job, at the University of Iowa, two years post-PhD; and my current job at the University of New Brunswick, just after getting tenure. I’ve also been offered, and declined, a couple of others. So I’m not entirely terrible, although over my career I’ve converted interviews into job offers at just about the rate you’d expect by random picks from the interviewed candidates. I prefer not to think about that too much.

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17 thoughts on “Two ways I flubbed my first job interview

  1. Jeremy Fox

    One of my own two most embarrassing moments in academia was totally flubbing a predictable question from the chair of the search committee on my first faculty job interview:

    https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/05/08/my-most-embarrassing-moments-in-academia/

    I think most people have probably embarrassed themselves professionally at some point. It happens.

    And by the way, the rate at which you’ve converted interviews into job offers is far better than mine. I’ve interviewed for something like 12 or 14 faculty positions in my life. I’ve only ever been offered the job I currently hold, and I was fortunate to get that offer (the person who was first offered the job turned it down).

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Fortunately for my self-esteem and yours, I expect there is very wide variance associated with the interview-to-job rate, and with smallish sample sizes we’ll never know whether we interview poorly or have just been a bit unlucky! 🙂

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      1. Jeremy Fox

        And fortunately for my self-esteem and yours, I’m sure we both have heard of people who have blown interviews much worse than either of us ever has. Everyone who’s been in academia long enough has probably heard of someone who blew an interview by being an arrogant jerk or something. That’s rare in my experience, but it happens.

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  3. Rob Johns (@robcjohns)

    Ugh, I remember the first time I did a phone interview for a postdoctoral position, I spent the whole conversation pointing out all of the things I thought I could get out of working in their lab…turns out they actually wanted to know what I brought to the table (obviously). To make it all the more awkward, a few weeks later they sent me an e-mail offering the postdoc…oops, they sent it to the wrong “Rob” that they interviewed…I had to sheepishly reply that they had used the wrong e-mail address…

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Good story (and it makes me feel better knowing I’m not the only one).

      On the mail mixup: I’ve gotten other people’s rejection letters, but never someone else’s job offer. I think the sheepishness should have been entirely on the other side of that transaction!

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