This is the fourth post of a multi-part series where I talk about my job hunt. Read part one (prepping through library school jobs and classes), part two (library school extras), and part three (cover letter & resume/CV).
So we’ve made it this far. The interview! The scary part. Let me share some snippets of my experience.
My first (and as it turns out, only) in person job interview was at the University of Wisconsin. UW! I’m from Wisconsin and grew up in a suburb of Madison so it was certainly close to home. I was offered the interview the day before Thanksgiving and it was scheduled for the tail end of my winter break, January 9.
I was partially convinced that UW had an internal candidate and that they were only bringing me in to fill an interview slot. I’d heard stories about this and it seemed possible given that I hadn’t even had a phone interview. I felt that I was qualified, but who can say what a hiring committee is thinking?
I remember googling pictures of the people on the hiring committee so I could visualize them. As if it would give me insight on what exactly they were looking for. I also remember how tricky it was to figure out how, if at all, I would work with the people on the search committee. I felt in many ways that I was going in blind, despite my best attempts at research.
Panic set in about three nights before the interview. My parents had gotten my favorite pizza, so I had a slice and a Spotted Cow sitting in front of me when my stomach turned. Starting in that moment, I could not eat. DAYS. I had mere days before I was in front of a group of real professionals vying for a job, trying to be professional and knowledgeable. All it took was my mom to ask, “How’s it going?” for me to start bawling instantly. My brother chirped, “What’s wrong?” and she said, “Oh, she’s just nervous.” Compassionately, not dismissively. And she just hugged me because that was totally true and that was all that could be done. Tears and a hug.
So how did I prepare? I didn’t, really. I mean, I read things online about interview best practices and common questions. I freaked out and practiced a million answers to, “What is your biggest weakness?” (Still never came up with a good answer. That is an evil question.)
One major contributor to my nerves was that I felt so damn shaky about my job talk. My prompt was: Describe technical challenges with current repository tools in meeting researchers’ data curation needs. As I compiled my slides I grew aggravated. Was I saying things they already knew about, that were blatantly obvious? I had procrastinated in that incredibly stupid way you do when you just feel in your bones that you’ll have the knowledge and poise to do it… but later. I was scrambling to focus my ideas and I just felt completely unconfident about what I was sharing.
For a few nights prior to the interview I started having these crazy dreams. Very odd. In the dreams, I was sifting through dozens and dozens of black and white photos and utterly panicking because I couldn’t place the faces on them. I felt like I should know them – why didn’t I know them? – and they just fluttered past as I flipped through, speeding up through my panic. This was a recurring dream day after day from a gal who has never had recurring dreams – not prior nor since. I woke up sweaty, flustered, confused – what had just happened? (To put it into context, at this time I was on a huge family history kick so I was spending a lot of time sorting through and digitizing photos…)
The night before my interview they put me up in a hotel a mere block away from the library. I was wearing some thin coat, mittonless and hatless, and it was bitterly cold out. I speedwalked to Michaelangelo’s on State Street to meet a friend. The main thing I remember from that night was the weird half-in, half-out committal I felt. It was picturesque: mug of tea in my hands, bright warm coffeeshop light, snow twinkling on State Street all lit up but almost deserted. My friend asked me some variation on whether I wanted this job. I paused. I had to navigate a meandering yes it would be a great first job! and well, I could do these other things too.
That is the particular grotesque pain point of being on the job market. You want to, have to be emotionally invested in the job so you can sell your bright smile and good ideas but at the same time, you’re well aware they’re courting other contenders and you don’t want to give all your affection away. You walk the tightrope of keeping that distance. You have to guard your heart and your feelings and your ego. You know even when you say, eh, I would be fine if they didn’t pick me, that, come on, it’s a baldfaced lie. It’s akin to falling for someone. It’s so early that you don’t know if it’s infatuation or something deeper; it’s intoxicating, petrifying, worrisome, delightful, all bundled up. The possibilities seem endless but are they really?
So that’s where I was emotionally… a hot mess. For the rest of the conversation I chatted as if in a daze but I was starting to feel better than I had days before. It was so close. I was at the point of no return.
I showed up at 8:50am and entered Memorial Library from Langdon Street. Keep in mind that I had never actually been inside Memorial before and it’s a very confusing building to navigate. After many minutes of trying to figure out where the entrance was, I located the chair of my search committee and we were off. First, the interview portion in a small, depressingly lit room. I smiled and hoped it didn’t look like a grimace. I reminded myself to breathe. My search committee told me what they did and I tried to retain that information. Next I was given a sheet of paper with the interview questions listed. Probably around 15, if I recall correctly. Here are the general topics I recall being asked about:
- Talk about a time you learned a new technology. How did you approach that process?
- Talk about a time you taught something to someone. What was your approach?
- Who would you partner with on campus on research data issues?
- What type of supervisory relationship works well for you?
- Some flavor of question about the data lifecycle (where I had to scramble to remember the data lifecycle)
Next I met briefly with Ed Van Gemert, University Librarian. He was very kind. Then whisked away to HR, where I had the loveliest experience. There’s so much safety in HR! All that real talk of life insurance and vacation days reminded me that maybe, possibly I could get this job.
Next up, job talk. At this point I was kind of just like well this is happening. Again, my prompt was: Describe technical challenges with current repository tools in meeting researchers’ data curation needs. The talk was a blur. I just looked at my slides again and they are less embarrassing than I thought they might be! Somehow in my mind I convinced myself that they were terrible. As I look over them I remember my fear and I’m more than a little proud, actually. Because I’m a fan of transparency and showing rather than just telling, you can download a copy of my job talk slides here.
I recall the q&a portion being… distinctly unfun. There were things I was asked about that I couldn’t speak to, so I had a few moments where I gracefully had to half answer or cheerfully admit that I wasn’t sure. Awkward alert. To be fair, some were questions that related more to linked data and catalog records and stuff that was totally out of my zone of expertise. My search committee members smiled at me and I smiled back into the audience and we wrapped things up. Done.
I left the day at around 2pm or so, after eating lunch with the search committee. I was happy, lightweight. I remember thinking, “No matter what happens, that was such a positive experience.” Much of this was due to the search committee chair, who was overwhelmingly kind throughout the day. High fives all around because I HADN’T HUMILIATED MYSELF!
I did ask about the timeline for their decision at the end of my interview. They told me they hoped to decide by the end of the month but not to be concerned if it took longer. I’ll write more about how that unfurled in another probably too rambly blog post.
The only way out is through. You’re lucky and grateful to have gotten an interview but it’s still scary beyond belief. Breathe, show up, do what you can do. It will be over soon enough.
The anticipation is often (always?) worse than the actual thing. I think this goes beyond interviews. A lot of this post was about emotion, my story, less about tips and things like that. That’s intentional. Talking about the emotion and the realness, that’s the true gift we can give each other. Things are hard for everyone at different points and I know I’ve found strength in hearing that from people. For me, the moments leading up to the interview were infinitely worse than the moments I spent with my search committee.
Don’t put off preparing your job talk. Okay so I’m a big hypocrite because I have a presentation next week and my slides aren’t ready! But we all know that this is good advice, if you choose to follow it.
You know so much more than you think you know. At every point along the way your brain will be telling you that you know very little. You are a novice and a fraud and you’re probably not going to get the job. The other candidates are amazingly brilliant and probably hot and they surely didn’t spend the days leading up to the interview crying into a beer they couldn’t bear to drink.
These are all lies borne of brain trickery! Don’t let this be the reason you procrastinate on the aforementioned job talk!
It’s okay to come back to a question if you’re stumped. I did this for one or two questions. I mean, in an interview your nerves may get the best of you. There’s so much whizzing through your brain that it can be hard to answer even simple questions! So if you’re blanking, just say, “Is it okay if we come back to this question at the end?”
Approach the job talk as an exploration, not a recommendation. When I was preparing my job talk a major stressor was that it was increasingly hard to determine the platforms, staffing, and projects already underway at UW. There’s only so much information you can dredge up from websites. So you wonder and wonder what to even share that would be relevant to your audience. The way I got around this was by reminding myself that I should explore the issues at hand, not try to prescribe solutions. If you try to give exact solutions you may back yourself into a corner where what you’re saying doesn’t fit with some aspect of the organization; however, if you say “x and y are platforms that may work well at solving z problem” you don’t run into the same trouble.
Evaluate your interviewers, too. Are they kind? Do they smile? The interview is perhaps the only chance you’ll get to feel out a sliver of the organizational culture. These are maybe going to be your coworkers. What do you think?
Do you have questions about the interview process? Stories to share from your own experience?