Humanities Ph.D.s and the Job Interview: It’s Not About You

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
Director of Graduate Student Advising and Engagement in the Humanities


Humanities Ph.D.s searching for faculty positions may be especially busy in February and March, as this is the season for on-campus final interviews. No blog post can mitigate the stress of these high-stakes encounters, but I wanted to invite readers to reflect on some unique challenges and opportunities that humanities scholars face in job interviews (both in academia and elsewhere).

First, if you are actively interviewing for jobs, you may have concluded that nothing in your academic program has prepared you for the experience.

For example, my focus in graduate school was Victorian women writers. If Victorian women interviewed for jobs, nobody was writing about it. Charlotte Brontë—who worked stints as both a governess and a schoolteacher—probably came the closest.


Probably not the best role model for your interview prep.

In Brontë’s final novel, Villette (1854), the English heroine wanders into a Belgian girls’ boarding school (thinking it’s an inn), and finds herself asking for a job. In English (the school proprietor only speaks French). A conversation ensues, in which neither party understands the other. The heroine is asked for references; she has none.

She gets hired anyway. (Obviously, times have changed since then.)

Beyond fiction, other aspects of graduate humanities training and academic culture might hamper our ability to interview well. The first is simply that humanities scholarship (despite some promising trends to the contrary) remains mired in the “solitary genius” syndrome: To be taken seriously in our fields, we need to engage in single authorship. Not only must we work alone, but our contribution must be a thoroughly original one. Hence the ongoing litany overheard at academic conventions and on the professional interview circuit: “MY work focuses on …” “MY dissertation explores …” “MY book intervenes …”

In what other realm in your life do you hear the personal pronoun relied upon so heavily? (Parenting a toddler comes to mind.)

I never thought to second-guess my own self-promoting interview strategies until my third run at the job market. I was a finishing a postdoctoral fellowship, and about to leave town for a much-anticipated campus visit. A senior colleague (who had interviewed me for the postdoctoral program two years prior) pulled me aside, fixed me with a steely gaze, and said: “LISTEN. AND ASK QUESTIONS.”

Immediately, I felt mortified, recalling how ludicrous I must have appeared, holding forth on my dissertation topic in the middle of his kitchen (during the social part of the interview) as a postdoctoral finalist.

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A good interview is a conversation in which everyone works together to find the answer.

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From that day on, my approach to interviews changed, and with it disappeared a lot of the self-consciousness I tended to feel in those situations. For ultimately, the interview was not about me. I was not being interviewed because I was some genius Victorianist that everybody wanted to talk to. Rather, the interview was a conversation about an organization, a department, and a team of future colleagues who had a specific set of needs and challenges. Was I the best person to address those needs? A good interview is a conversation in which everyone works together to find the answer.

Yes, you will be asked about your scholarship, because many departments and programs are looking for someone to teach with credibility and maintain or raise their academic profile. But on a personal level, they may not be as interested in your project as you might assume. If you get hired and become a valued colleague, your conversations in the faculty lounge will probably center on items of shared interest: campus politics, the upcoming departmental review, who will sit on the next faculty hiring committee. When you publish your first book, hopefully your colleagues will be very excited for you, but they will not likely have time to read it.

These plain facts should not discourage you, but help you to focus instead on why humanities scholars should rock their interviews. Those trained in the humanities are exceptionally good at collecting information, asking questions (when they set their mind to it), and telling stories. And a good interview relies on all these skills.

For example, a standard (and very true) piece of interview wisdom is to learn about the organization before your conversation. My recommendation for both faculty and non-faculty positions is to study the materials available to you like the most valuable primary source in your archive. If, for example, it’s the departmental website, think critically about it. What appear to be the department’s strengths? What courses, topics, or programs seem under-represented or conspicuously absent? How productive are the faculty in the department? Are resources available for professional development? Does the department appear to value diversity? Innovative teaching? Social justice?

By asking yourself key questions as you learn about the school and department, you can frame thoughtful, important questions for the appropriate juncture in your interview.

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The trick is to tell the same compelling story, in different ways.

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During the interview itself, don’t underestimate the power of storytelling, and how good you likely already are at framing narratives. Some career coaches stress that every job application—from cover letter and resume through the final interview—is a sustained exercise in storytelling (this applies for every industry). The trick is to tell the same compelling story, in different ways. That is, the conversation should confirm what you already set forth in your cover letter: Your academic and professional training has prepared you to make a unique, invaluable contribution to the department (or organization) in question.

If you think of yourself as the master storyteller (who also listens and asks questions) in this situation, much of the powerlessness we tend to feel in interviews can dissipate.

Finally, the art of creating stories is an exercise in empathy. To create a compelling narrative, we must imagine the expectations, needs, and reactions of the listener. We put ourselves in their shoes for a moment, and in doing so, they become less foreign to us. A connection is forged. You may stop feeling nervous for a while, as you wonder whether your interviewer is anxious as well, and what she has at stake in making the perfect hire for this position. (Taking this to an extreme, I used to calm my nerves by wondering what my hiring committee members had eaten for breakfast that morning.)

So good luck, job candidates! Bearing in mind that it’s “not about you” can free you (paradoxically) to represent yourself in a far more authentic way.  Listen and ask questions. Eschew self-promotion and tell stories that inform and delight your listeners. They just might invite you back for more.