Monday, June 29, 2015

Nilla in New York With Some Job Misery.

I come to you after a disastrous Skype interview for a 3 year VAP position that I coveted.

I'm two years out of school, and have taught part-time at two excellent and well-regarded private institutions near, let's say, Rochester. I've done well, have great references, and know all the right things about my field. I was told about this VAP job by an old grad student friend who teaches at the university in question.

I was told I was a shoo-in.

During the Skype interview everything went well, until I was asked, "So why do you want to work here?"

It's not a question I had thought about or prepared for. The only thing that came to my mind was, "Well, you have a full time job. I don't." (I didn't say it, but it took all of my strength.)

Instead I said something about my background and experience and my training. As I spoke haltingly, I saw one committee member look across the screen at another, and I sensed I'd not given the right answer.

After that I couldn't focus. I kept trying to work why I would love teaching at their university into every question. I even said at one point, "I've been on your campus. It's lovely. I like seeing professors sometimes bring children to campus." (I have no idea what I meant or where the idea came from.)

I dug a hole and could never find my way out. My anxiety took over and an hour later I thought of perceptive and excellent answers to the last questions - things anyone with my training would lead with - that I'd just not mentioned at all.

I left a voicemail for my pal and haven't heard back.

What should I have said? What does the question mean? Does it mean that university? That field? Why Rochester? Do committee members understand how this question sounds to someone without a real job? What would you have answered?


  1. It's a fairly common question in my experience (on both sides) though I'm not sure it has the probative value we interviewers think it has. It's supposed to give the candidate a chance to show off the background research they did, talk about how your research fits the general trends of the department (or fills a notable gap), how your teaching will enhance the program as it exists (no matter how much you or we would like to change it), how you have experience/ties to the sort of community the institution shares space with so you won't get sick of it and want to leave, or start griping about local culture in earshot of the students.

    It's about fit, and we know what kind of a snakepit that is. And about preparation for the interview, though I would also point out that you don't know how good or bad the other candidates at that stage were, or how closely you fit the committee's private preconceptions about the kind of scholar/teacher they want.

  2. I had a similar experience last year. The *one* college that wanted an interview told me they didn't have any other professors of early hamster lit and that I was at the top of their pile. And that I'd be in charge of creating their early hamster lit curriculum if I were hired. They were so excited.

    And then they never called me again. I have no idea what I did wrong. I'm still on the market.

    1. Maybe it wasn't you, it was them. Maybe the provost read some book he picked up in an airport and it said interprofessional gerbil genomics is the next hot thing.

  3. I think you're supposed to tell the committee about your background and experience. I don't think you gave the wrong answer, though maybe you didn't deliver the answer as well as you could have. Nice campuses are important. Nobody wants to work in a dump. That's a good thing to add.

    It's a question that can weed out applicants who give the wrong answer. "I want to work in a place where my colleagues aren't a bunch of shitbags, like they are here." <-- That's a bad answer. I'd give credit for honestly saying that you need a full time job and this is the best one you've found, although others might think that's a little forward. You probably did better than you think.

  4. As others have said it's a invitation to explain why you'd be a good fit. Preferably why you'd be a better fit then anyone else they might be talking to.

    But when your are a Direction State U (like, say, my department) the real answer from any candidate you can actually get is "Because I need a job and you're offering one". Anything more than that—family nearby, like the climate, like the local political style, spousal unit can get a job locally—is gravy. We know it. They know it. Even the Dean's rep knows it.

    It's almost as bad as well meaning strangers asking where you'd like to work. Correct answer: where they'll hire me.

    So prep for the question in the future, and if at all possible have both an academic part (how your cultural conflicts in early hamster society background with let you build the early hamster program while synergizing with their existing comparative hamster conflicts program) and a "gravy" reason (this may take some investigative googling).

    Anyway, no one is going to circular file your application just for stumbling on a question that we all know is a bit silly on the face of it. But this is an experience to remember when you find yourself mentoring someone looking for a job later on: there is a version of that question for all professional interviews.

    1. My institution is also a bit off the beaten path, and that sounds right to me. I don't think Nilla messed up. If my own search committee experience is any indication, what they're really asking is, "so you're not going to quit six months into your three year contract?"

  5. It seems to me that this is a really good (crucial, in fact) question for a tenure-track job, and a silly or irrelevant one for anything up to and perhaps including a one-year full-time position (with perhaps some variability depending on whether the one-year is a sabbatical fill-in position, with a full range of teaching from gen ed to major, or just another as-many-gen-ed-sections-as-we-can-dump-on-you assignment), and for a 3-year VAP -- well, I'm not sure. A 3-year VAP is sort of a strange animal (at least in the humanities) -- an increasingly common one, but still one that everybody's trying to define. I suppose the reality of the market is that departments will have plenty of candidates to choose among for such a position, and therefore do want to find someone who will be a good fit for their particular institution, student body, etc. (this would be even more true if there's some chance that they'll be doing a tenure-track search in the same area -- say, if they were only able to get a 3-year to fill a spot opened up by a retirement or other departure, but are hoping that will change).

    But from the point of the person seeking the 3-year position, it's basically 3 years of secure employment while one continues to go on the market, try to improve one's marketability by publishing, etc., etc., and resists getting attached to a place one knows one must leave. After all, if one ends up staying the whole 3 years, it's just long enough to begin to like a place, feel part of it, feel a bit settled, etc. -- except one knows that one will be dumped at the end of the 3 years, so it becomes an exercise in resisting any such feelings, and keeping the bigger picture in mind.

    So, yes, in deference to the realities of the situation, you need to be able to answer the question, but in many ways it's neither a fair nor a kind one. It would serve them right (but not serve the candidate well) if one of their candidates burst into tears at the question; as it is, stumbling and around and getting distracted by a question which highlights all the difficulties and power differentials in the situation is understandable, if perhaps not optimal for actually getting the job. It seems to me that, at the very least, if they're going to ask the question, committees offering anything less than a TT job should save it to the end of the interview, or very close to the end, as those who construct surveys save questions at which respondents might take offense to the end. Of course, that could mean a less-than-strong finish for the candidate, which would also make for an uncomfortable feeling at the end of the interview, but at least it wouldn't be a distraction from other, less fraught questions which the candidate could answer both truthfully and well.

    1. The nature of the job does make a big difference in the appropriateness of the question, absolutely. I left that out, mostly because it's not a question I've ever asked for a short-term position. I've never been on a committee for a 3-year position, but I think I'd consider it more like a tenure-track appointment than not. It's a long time to have someone around.

  6. Humans are too subtle. Cats and dogs are much more straightforward in these interactions: cats openly try to kill each other, and dogs sniff each other's ass, and everybody knows where they stand and can get on with life.

    I ask this "why do you want to [work|attend] here" question of prospective colleagues and students for much the same reasons. All previous comments by others above touch on my rationale in some way, but I have more to say. I always have more to say.

    Bottom line is I need to make an informed decision about you, and I want you to be making an informed decision about the job, because I want -- I NEED -- us both to be happy with our respective choices. The consequences are manifold should one of us become dissatisfied because our decision was based on incomplete information. I'm looking not for a specific answer, but at least for you to have a method that you've executed or are in process of executing, such that by the time you sign the contract, your eyes are fully open.

    "Here" means anything and everything you want it to be. This program, this department, this institution, this town, state, etc. up to but hopefully not including this planet. As others say or imply, once we commit to you, we don't want you to leave before your time is up, especially not with your final words being "I had NO IDEA this department/school/town/county/etc. was so dysfunctional/progressive/solipsistic/carboniferous/etc.!!" because if you do, then we must brace ourselves for the coming search. We don't want the search. Please don't make us do another search.

    You mentioned that you visited campus and found something to like about the culture, e.g. the faculty kids you saw. That's huge (unless your interviewers are child-haters, in which case they're probably in the wrong business, and you can extrapolate from there). Sleep well tonight: other candidates learned all they know about the institution from having skimmed the wikipedia page on their smartphones while they were in the office with the big, porcelain phones (that's a euphemism).

    And now the malbec compels me to write that the glance between the interviewers could mean anything: maybe they finally found a candidate who could answer the question. Since it could mean anything, you can't use it as data -- when you're in front of the classroom (as you may already know, but I'm on a roll) the students will be checking their phacebook and smartfones and themselves and each other for fashion tips, nits, zits, ticks, nips, dicks, or whoknowswhatthefuck, and it has nothing to do with you and it's the same in an interview. The only consistent barometer is the one you build into yourself. It's natural to replay an event and find specific things you could have done better; it's in our nature as academicians to do that. So you save that insight and try to do those better things when or if there is a next time. The best that you can hope for on any given day is that on average, you were well enough above average, and that it's good enough till you can do it again. If the interviewers are willing to 86 you because of a single haltingly delivered answer, then they deserve whomever they eventually hire, if they can find anyone up to their "standards". If they don't want you, you sure as hell don't want them.

    This is the closest literary equivalent to my interview day that I know of:

    Partial transcript --
    Janine Melnitz: Do you believe in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis?
    Winston Zeddemore: Ah, if there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say.

    1. That clip is very appropriate for our discussion. Immediately after being hired, he has to deal with some nasty, dirty, unpleasant ghost trap thing. That's just like starting your job teaching a freshman gen ed course.