Thirty years ago this month I started my first professional position. That recollection got me to thinking about all the interviews I’ve participated in over my career. By many standards I’ve probably held fewer positions over a lifetime than most workers. According to a 2010 article in The Wall Street Journal the magic number is at least seven career changes and possibly twice that number before retirement. Over my three decades I’ve worked for four different institutions in five different jobs: instructional services/reference librarian, library director, medical librarian, director of archives, and curator of special collections and rare books. If all goes well and according to plan that number will not change, or change very little before I retire.
This means there have not been many interviews over those thirty years. If I add the number of interviews for which I was not successful to those in which I was the total is still under ten. So I may not have much to say to those who will shift jobs and interview more than I have. On the other hand, I have been on the other side of the process more times than in “the hot seat.” What words of wisdom, if any, might I offer about the interview process? Three phrases come immediately to mind: be yourself, be accurate/truthful, and know your stuff.
I don’t know how helpful it might be to expand on those three phrases in this short space except to invite some contemplation. Individuals or committees looking over a resume or cover letter are fairly skilled, in my experience, when it comes to matching a paper trail with a flesh-and-blood person. They spot inconsistencies, they sense artificiality, they are rigorous in trying to find out who you are as an applicant and whether or not you are a good match for the position, especially in a day of shrinking dollars and a tight job market. Cover letters can be both deadly and comical to a hiring authority when the same descriptive phrases show up again and again. Just type “tired resume phrases” into your favorite search engine and you’ll get an idea of what to avoid.
A few other thoughts come to mind when I think of interviews. The first—which I’ve done myself—is to look at an interview as a means toward sharpening skills. At least one time in my career I realized that it had been some time since I’d put myself through the interview process; it is not something you can really practice on your own or with a friend. And so I applied for positions of interest, updated my vita, and ultimately got an interview. I was a finalist for a position and although I wasn’t hired the experience was invaluable for the next—successful—time. Second (and this, perhaps, from the perspective of an employer)—look at the hiring process as a way to invigorate and diversify a staff. New blood in an organization is important. As I’ve been researching and writing my article/book on the closing of the U of M library school I discovered how important it was to the university for the school to look across the profession, beyond the bounds of the upper Midwest, when filling new faculty positions. Hiring from within, or from a small, provincial pool of applicants can be deadly to an organization.
Finally, it really is important to be yourself. The interview for my present position was an all-day affair, starting at 8 in the morning and ending at 7 in the evening. I had just returned from a trip to Israel; my mind and body were in another time zone. In the middle of my public presentation that afternoon my mind froze. (It didn’t help that a gentleman in the front row fell asleep early on; I found out later that he fell asleep at every event.) For what seemed like an eternity (to me) I stood silently at the podium, my mind racing with questions: Where am I? What am I doing here? What did I just say? I caught myself and continued with my talk. Afterwards I confided the episode to a friend in the audience. His comment: “It just looked like a dramatic pause.” I didn’t lose my cool, I knew my stuff, I carried on, I was myself. Perhaps I was fortunate. In any event, I was prepared…even for a mid-afternoon brain freeze.