Surviving Job Interviews From Hell
A bizarre question popped up on a job forum I was reading a few years ago. “Can being too attractive hurt you on the market?”
The post described the harrowing tale of a young teacher’s recent campus visit. Women couldn’t take their eyes off him the whole time, and men regarded him with open hostility.
Yeah, it’s a hard knock life for attractive white guys.
But his story made me wonder. During the final interview, the department chair flat out asked him, “You know you can’t date students, right?” The chair went on to describe the sad singles market in the area.
A couple of faculty may have made passes at him.
Granted, a little weird.
Too attractive to find a job, though? Possible, not plausible. We’ve all heard of “overqualified,” but even that’s just a nice way of saying, “They won’t stick around for very long.”
The candidate’s question inspired a long thread. Most of the comments offered little insight. They just took aim at his vanity and overall arrogance. To some extent, he’d asked for it.
Still, I’ve reflected a lot on his experience — not just the possibility of being too “attractive,” but of being too good. We like to build little narratives for ourselves when we don’t get what we want. We were too awesome for them anyway. Too smart. Too nice.
Or too handsome, apparently.
It’s not always self-delusion
We all have the potential to delude ourselves. On the other hand, sometimes it’s actually true. You really are too good.
To put it another way, you were just what they needed. If only they’d known better. Alas, they were blind.
You should acknowledge that. Don’t shout it on Twitter. But admit to yourself that bad hires happen. I’ve served on enough search committees to know. Universities are no stranger to buyer’s remorse.
If only I had a nickle for every time someone said, “Why didn’t we hire the other person?” I’d be able to buy myself a whole soda.
Bad interviews happen, and it’s not always your fault. Once, a search committee spent twenty minutes grilling me on my research plan. I’d just published my first academic book.
Naturally, they asked, “What’s your next project about?” When I described it in detail, they asked, “And what about after that?” So I sketched out a couple more ideas I’d been thinking about.
One of the interviewers asked, “What about after that?”
This went on for a while. Finally I said, “Well, I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to write for my fifth book, twelve years from now.”
This interview didn’t result in a campus visit.
Sometimes you should run away
My worst interview took place at a private high school. First, they sent me a botched schedule, so I showed up an hour late — to the faculty’s dismay. Adding insult to injury, I pointed out the mistake.
My candor embarrassed the principal. He admitted the error in private, but later made a joke about millennials oversleeping.
Basically, he blamed me. But in a jovial way. So it was all right. There was only a tiny trace of blood in the water.
During lunch, one of the teachers proudly denounced my teaching presentation, listing off all the problems he found in my interpretation of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”
According to him, Homer Barron wasn’t actually dead. “Faulkner was using a metaphor,” he said. “With all due respect, I’m going to have to reteach the whole thing to my class next week. Thanks for trying.”
“Okay,” I said. “But I think Homer Barron was literally dead, and his death had symbolic value for the reader…”
“No, the whole thing was a metaphor!”
That afternoon, I visited with the teacher I’d be replacing. She asked me, “Do you think an MFA really qualifies you to teach literature? I’m not trying to offend you here — just being honest.”
The rejection came swift and merciful, three days after my visit.
That weekend, I did beat myself up a little. But time and reflection do wonders. Now, I realize the truth. My only real mistake was bothering to send a thank you note.
Always do a post-game
No doubt, you’ve also survived job interviews from hell. What are you supposed to do after the job you wanted goes up in smoke? How do you deal with the lingering sense of unfairness?
It’s always healthy to engage in some honest, post-game reflection. That means not only recognizing what they did wrong, but what we could’ve done better. Even the worst experiences can teach us something.
Sure, three big nails closed the coffin on that one job. The principal led everyone to believe I was irresponsible for showing up late. Someone who’d observed my teaching hated the very essence of my lesson plan. And the person whom I was replacing thought I was unqualified.
But I also stumbled a little during my teaching demonstration. I’d been teaching college students for three years, and had little experience working with teens. Honestly, they made me nervous. The entire day, I’d felt awkward and on edge. Out of place.
Nobody even mentioned my discomfort with high schoolers. But when I was totally honest, it became clear I shouldn’t have been applying for jobs outside my major wheelhouse.
Teaching high school was my backup plan. Maybe that showed more than I thought it had.
Sometimes interviews go south
Bad interviews happen. I’ve been gas-lit, laughed at, and outright insulted during mine. So have you. It’s easy to walk away from those experiences with a negative image of yourself.
Sometimes, an awkward incident can throw off the entire day. Someone might roll their eyes at you during a pivotal moment. You might get asked an intensely personal question that kills an important lunch.
Lots of things can throw an interview. With a little skill, you can recover. But the size of the blunder matters.
One time, a friend of mine overheard members on the search committee literally rating her attractiveness. She’d been standing outside their office between interviews, and they didn’t see her until it was too late. When they did, they made a series of transparent excuses.
That incident tainted the rest of her visit. Apparently being rated a 10+ by two retiring professors doesn’t make your day after all.
Interviews can burst into flames mid-air, and the rest of the time you’re just watching them crash and burn, while doing your best to keep on a fake smile. Only later do you collapse on your bed with three overpriced mini-bottles of Maker’s from the hotel bar.
Keep banging on doors
A lot of life follows the same course of job interviews. Think about publishing. Ever query letter you send off. Every email. Every meeting. Every business card you hand out is a kind of interview.
Think about authors like Kathryn Stockett and Stephanie Meyer. No, they don’t seem to have a lot in common at first. Until you realize that each of them racked up dozens of rejections, before going on to become huge successes. They probably don’t think much about the agents and editors who passed them up. But I’m sure there’s at least a few out there kicking themselves — ever so gently — for their lapse in judgement.
Anything you have to interview or audition for can fall victim to the same bad calls. It’s easy to think you failed. Because, on the surface, you did. You didn’t convince them to hire you.
After all, we like to think that most people are reasonable. Especially when we want them to give us a job. We’re supposed to ignore the passive aggressive remarks and weird questions. Ignoring, considering, and internalizing can fuzz together if we’re not careful.
We’re supposed to turn the other cheek. But we get so good at pretending the interviewers are right, we forget that maybe they’re not. Just because a company or university has money to hire someone, that doesn’t mean they necessarily know what they’re doing.
Sometimes, your work has a lot of value. You have a lot to offer. And you even articulate it clearly. But your potential employer doesn’t see it. One of the hardest parts of surviving a job search is figuring out what you screwed up and what you got right.
If you didn’t get the job, that doesn’t mean you completely bombed. Maybe they bombed. And you’re better off for it.
Search committees have a lot of power. When you’re in the asking chair, it’s hard to feel your backbone. It’s there. Don’t forget.