Thursday, October 2, 2014

This Week's Big Thirsty. The Job Search Misery Continues from The Yuckster of the Yukon.

Okay, don't judge me too harshly. I taught at a terrible school for 2 years, right smack dab in the middle of some okay post-doc / VAPpy positions. This is a school with a bad reputation in my discipline. It's not a for-profit or anything, but the name SOUNDS bad, people in the state know it's a joke, and I didn't too particularly well there, ending up more or less getting into a shouting match with a department chair who was happy not to renew me.

Now, I was glad to leave, and I found a pretty good position right after, MANY states away. And I felt the search they did for me was a little perfunctory and quick because I had a contact on their faculty and they hired very late.

But now as I look at some tenure-line positions, I am worried all over about what they'll find if they investigate.

I did nothing wrong. Not a pervert. Not an embezzler. Not a nut.

But I was unhappy, and when the chair went after me because I wasn't quite the Nazi he was, well, then things got bad in a hurry.

Q: What do I say about this position, this school, this relationship with the chair? To my friends, my story makes sense; they side me. But of course they would. I've practiced it out loud on my own, though, and I can't seem to find a way to make it sound like I'm not either hiding something or simply attacking the boorish ignorance of the place. Has anyone had a similar black mark on the CV? How did you clean it up?


  1. Since it was a sticky situation for you, be careful how you handle it.

    Above all, stick to the facts. Don't engage in speculation--let the interviewers do that.

    Also, don't volunteer any information they don't need to know. Make them ask about it if they have any questions. If it doesn't come up in the main part of the session, ask if there's anything else they want to know about you or your experience. If nobody says anything, don't worry about it--chances are it's not important.

    But remember to say nothing overtly negative about your former employer, even if it's the truth. You have to make yourself look good but not at their expense. If, for example, you're asked about why you left, say something such as you were looking for a more favourable opportunity. Didn't get along with your boss? You had "differences of opinion".

    But keep this in mind: if the interviewers go on about seemingly trivial details, they're looking for excuses not to hire you.

  2. I have no direct experience on either side of the interview table with this one, so take it with a grain of salt (maybe others with more direct experience will weigh in), but I believe that, in may cases, a simple "it wasn't a good fit" can serve the purpose.

    I'd also guess that people aren't going to be all that curious about why you left one job in a string of temporary ones, especially if the institution has a questionable reputation, and/or some other aspect of the next job -- institution, geography, specific duties, etc. -- will appear "better " to many academics. I'm not sure that holding multiple non-tenure-track positions counts against someone these days (well, except for in the "stale Ph.D." sense); in Marc's example last week, it was leaving tenured jobs that looked possibly suspicious to some people.

    I'd guess that, if search committee members do press, they're as likely to be looking for gossip about the know-to-be-awful institution as information about you. In that case, the appropriate response is probably to hint that you have some highly entertaining stories to tell, but of course you wouldn't do so during a job interview. Whether or not it's a great idea to tell stories if/when you do get the job is another question; I'd guess that continuing to play a bit coy, while venting to close friends, would be the wisest course.

  3. I think you said it best: "This is a school with a bad reputation in my discipline." You could add, "some of the things I witnessed convinced me that it wasn't entirely undeserved." Then be prepared, if they press, with an example or two of examples illustrating what no credible institution would stand for.

  4. I would keep all those details close to the vest as posted upthread. Stick with "I wanted to pursue better opportunities" and then describe how you advanced your career by leaving - not how much of a joke the former institution was, but rather how you elevated yourself by departing. Presumably that's your reason for interviewing anyway - to advance your career. Best to avoid mentioning "differences of opinion" - the interviewers don't know you, and there's no way for them to know that your opinions were reasonable and your ex-chair's were not. I do not think it's a good idea to allude to any gossip you could share, even if they press. It is inevitable for interviewers to consider that you'd behave the same way about their own dirty laundry. Likewise with any allusion to a bad reputation - unless it was front-page news or well-known in academic circles, it'll just be seen as malice or lack of loyalty.

    Unfair though it may be, interviewers will assess your future behaviour based on your past behaviour at prior institutions. Disputations with the chair, disparaging the institution, sharing shameful secrets - no one wants to hire someone who does those things. They won't think, "that former institution deserved to be denigrated, but we do not, therefore, we'll get along fine." They will think, "He trashed his past employer and he'll do the same to us at the first opportunity." Better they think that you are simply advancing yourself, not fleeing because you couldn't get along.

    1. Agreed. If they know the former institution has a bad reputation, and you provide the "better opportunities" answer, they will see you as a classy person who keeps things close to the vest. Who wouldn't want a colleague like that in these days of oversharing?

    2. Just how much one should say will depend on who's conducting the interview.

      Many years ago, I was interviewed for an engineering position with a certain power company. I made it through the initial in-person session and had a later telephone follow-up.

      I was specifically asked why I didn't give a certain previous employer as a reference. I explained what my situation there was, but I was diplomatic, courteous, and polite. I mentioned that I often had disagreements with my boss and that he often over-ruled my recommendations, making me responsible if things didn't work out.

      It turned out that some, if not all, the people conducting those interviews were engineers themselves and they understood what I had to contend with at that company as they probably had been in situations like that themselves. They accepted my reasons that l believed I would not be described in favourable terms and that I didn't think it would be unbiased in its assessment of me.

      They thanked me for my honesty. A few days later, the power company made me an offer, but, after careful consideration, I declined it because I thought I had a better deal where I was at the time.