Well, THAT could have been awkward: job-interview edition

What, Andrew MacDonald asks, do you do if you and a friend are interviewing for the same job?  Academia is a small world, and so this is not a question that can be counted on to stay safely hypothetical.  It has, in fact, happened to me.  Awkward?  Maybe a little.  Especially once you hear the rest of the story.

It was in 1994 (I think).  I was on the job market as a postdoc and having my first real success at getting interviews. (I’m not counting my very first interview as a success. I did not distinguish myself.)  I was invited for half a dozen campus visits in a very busy semester; one of them was at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

I was comparing job-search notes with a friend (let’s call him “John”, largely because that’s actually his name) not long before my UMBC visit.  John, like me, was beginning to get interviews.  This made both of us happy.  But it turns out that John, like me, was interviewing for the job at UMBC.  This made both of us… conflicted.

But it wasn’t just that we were both interviewing for the same job.  My standard job talk (then) was built on my PhD work, on what I called “processing chain” interactions* between insects living in pitcher-plant leaves.  The pitcher-plant system was a superb model system, but it wasn’t particularly important per se.  So my next step was to consider similar interactions in systems that are widespread and important: benthic stream invertebrates.  I worked this into my job talk, to show future direction and a pathway to grant success (in fact, the work was later NSF-funded).  But: my first paper on processing-chain interactions in streams (which was in press at the time) was coauthored with – you guessed it – my friend John.  Yes: John and I were interviewing for the same job; and my job talk was about work I was doing with John.  Awkward!

Or at least, it could have been awkward.  It was certainly awkward inside my head for a while, while I figured out what I was going to do.  Could I drop the coauthored work from my talk?  Sure, but I was pretty sure it would weaken the talk; and our joint paper was in my application packet anyway.  Could I give a whole different job talk, perhaps on my phylogenetic tree shape work?  Sure, but that would lead to difficult questions about how the various parts of my research program connected and how I was going to pursue, and fund, the tree-shape work.  Could I just pretend I didn’t know about John’s interview? Sure, but that wouldn’t change the fact that the search committee (obviously) knew about it.

In the end, here’s what I settled on.  I gave my job talk unaltered, except that where my collaborative work with John came up, I stuck in a little aside.  I said “By the way, this bit of my talk is about work done jointly with my friend John.  You’re interviewing him next week.  He’s terrific – you’re going to enjoy meeting him”.  And then I kept going.

This, perhaps surprisingly, didn’t feel awkward at all**.  And in hindsight, I think I got this exactly right.  There was nothing whatsoever to be gained in avoiding the topic; and by mentioning and praising my collaborator I placed myself on the side of science as teamwork and of cooperation over competition.  Those are values we all ought to hold (and yes, I’m aware some people don’t hold them; but I’m just as happy not to work with those people).

Does this sound a bit boastful – that I did the right thing and want to tell you about it?  Well, maybe; although for me having done the right thing is a bit of a refreshing change.  Here on Scientist Sees Squirrel I’ve told you plenty of stories about doing the wrong thing – with reviewers; with editors; in writing a teaching statement; you name it.  You’ve got to let me have this one.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) July 18, 2017

Thanks to Andrew MacDonald for the tweet that reminded me of this story (and for permission to show it).

I’m on vacation this week and may be slow to moderate and respond to comments.

*^Links to the papers are paywalled, but if you email me, I’ll be happy to send you PDFs.

**^For me.  It may well have been awkward for my hosts, because the unwritten rule seems to be that candidates are never supposed to know who else is interviewing for the same job.  Mind you, as a candidate, I was always sniffing around trying to find out.  My most reliable trick?  Find the elevator.  Most elevators have a bulletin board next to them, and many of these bulletin boards have a posting of upcoming seminars – normally including job seminars.


6 thoughts on “Well, THAT could have been awkward: job-interview edition

  1. sleather2012

    Exactly the same thing happened to me, but we were were interviewed straight after each other on the same day, me first, so I kept having to explain that the modelling bit of the work had been done by Allan and they could ask him about next 🙂 To my surprise I got the job and spent the next twenty years at Silwood Park 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jeremy Fox

      My hypothesis is that the entire British faculty interview process is designed so as to maximize awkwardness for candidates, for the amusement of the search committee. 🙂

      An alternative hypothesis is that British, being very sensitive to awkwardness, want to screen candidates for their ability to handle awkwardness. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Friday links: women in science x 5, and SO MUCH MOAR | Dynamic Ecology

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