Private Life With Public Purpose

On Job Interviewing: Thinking from both sides of the table

Originally published December 1, 1999 by the American Historical Association, and can be accessed here: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-1999/on-job-interviewing-thinking-from-both-sides-of-the-table

A long weekend at the AHA meeting can go very quickly with all the intellectual, professional, and collegial work to do. Plus it’s just nice to take a break and see the town surrounding the hothouse atmosphere of the conference. So I found it difficult to imagine adding anything extra to the schedule. That was how I first conceived of the session “Interviewing in the Job Market of the 1990s: A Workshop,” organized by Carla Rahn Phillips. But the description intrigued me, since I was not very far in time from sitting for interviews myself. The uncertainties of being evaluated for one of the biggest steps in my professional career still loomed large in my memory. I folded down the corner of the page in the program book to mark the session for future reference.

Like Joan Didion evaluating B-movies, I just couldn’t get that monster out of my mind. Just twelve years past my PhD and my own first interviews, I still thought of myself as a recent graduate, and I identified with the interviewees in the program description; maybe, I thought, I could offer some sympathetic observations about surviving the interview. In addition, twelve whole years, which included teaching at three universities, tenure, and service on three search committees, had aged me enough to become in fact more like the interviewers on the other side of the table. Such are the shifting currents of midlife. Perhaps the session would be less an extra chore than a chance to take stock of my own shifting identity and to offer some helpful words of experience to a yow1ger set of historians. When Phillips’s letter arrived asking for volunteers for the session, I did not hesitate to sign up and add the session to my schedule.

I was delighted to meet a tableful of bright young historians, brimming with fresh ideas and eager for work as teacher-scholars. A theme quickly emerged. The chief dilemma for these interviewees was how to balance teaching and research—in their interviews and in their careers. This is especially a concern for the vast majority of PhDs who will get jobs at teaching-oriented schools. The challenge of balancing these twin professional vocations is especially acute at this stage because, of course, we are all socialized into the field at research schools, even if only a minority find work at one of them. The young historians asked three honest and astute questions about this issue, and our ensuing discussion suggested some insights with broad relevance.

First Question: Is teaching or research more important to the job interviewer? It became quite clear that once we thought concretely about actual job-search committees, there is no ready answer. Some members will be hostile to research and some will be avid to hear about it. If the committee is made of people who represent the average of the profession, most will be in between: each will have some research project, but it has simply never materialized into much written form beyond the dissertation. If the young scholar can present research in terms of its broadest significance, she or he has a good chance of catching the attention of even the unpublished job interviewer.

Second Question: What strategy should I use for talking about how I emphasize my teaching and my research? It never hurts to read up on the school, the department, and the individual professors. Beyond that local knowledge, there is no telling what they will want to hear. So the best strategy is, in a sense, none at all—except simply to be true to one’s own character. If you are a fighter, state your views and hope that those who agree with you will stand up for your candidacy; if you are a bridge-builder, try to show ways to mediate. Since getting a job is a brass ring you will have to live with for a long time, frankness will not only allow the interviewers to check your fit to the job, but also allow you to see if you really want to spend years working with these people.

Third Question: What can I do if I am pegged as a researcher in an interview for a job that emphasizes teaching? Certainly it pays to rehearse the classic defenses of the relation of the two—and to doublecheck your own belief in these: research keeps the teacher fresh in the field; research helps the teacher evaluate other people’s writing because of the constant demands to write oneself; the ongoing inquiry of research brings a touch of humility to the authority-soaked position of the college professor. To these can be added a recent, practical development on a frontier of teaching and research, namely, the support of undergraduate research. An active scholar is in a good position to help college students engage in their own research, perhaps even with presentations of their work at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research or other forums where journeymen scholars are welcome.

Like Jane Addams in Hull House, I felt the “subjective necessity” of the workshop. I hope it also had some value for the young scholars around the table, but I may have gained more than they did. Their questions were a reminder of some key dilemmas in the profession. Serving on the interviewer’s side of the desk will not make you feel young, but I highly recommend sessions such as this one as a chance to help out some people only a few years younger and to get personal and specific insights on the contemporary job market.

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