Interview season is about to start for academic job seekers, chiefly at the tenure-track faculty level. Blogosphere abounds with pointed advice on how to conduct oneself during an on-campus interview — “Dos and donts” of a faculty candidate include, and are not limited to: be confident, not cocky; respectful, not obsequious; funny, not tasteless; enthusiastic, not eager; competent, not haughty; and so on.
Don’t get me wrong, all of that is very sensible advice, and in fact I still remember the way I felt on my first interview; to say that I was a nervous wrack would be an understatement, constantly rehearsing lines in my head, worrying about any possible faux pas that could conceivably cost me the job.
But… does that really happen in practice ? How often does a candidate lose a job for which she initially seemed like a “shoe in”, due to an abysmal performance on the on-campus interview, or even for a less-then-brilliant talk, or an unfortunate statement, something “over the line” said at a topical moment of the interview ?
In my opinion: very seldom. Of course, it is entirely possible for someone to botch it badly, or in any case convey a very different impression to the search committee from what curriculum vitae and letters of recommendation initially suggested. However, based on my experience over the course of twenty years, as job candidate, faculty involved in a number (6) of faculty searches (in different capacity, generally member of the search committee), and even back to my graduate student days, I believe that most of the time the ranking of the finalists at the end of the interview will be the same as before the interviews started . That is, in the mind of the generic member of the search committee, the interview will simply confirm, indeed usually reinforce the impression that the person has formed while going through the pile of applications. And, to me this is not surprising; in fact, I would find it more peculiar if interviews completely upset the assessment based on an examination of the actual records.
By the time a junior scientist is invited for an on-campus interview, she has been in the business for at least a decade. She knows the environment, has met dozens of faculty, gone to countless seminars, (hopefully) given a lot of talks herself, may even have sat on a search committee herself, as a student representative. She has co-authored articles, put together an application package, including a research plan, a statement of teaching interests. She has attended conferences, Summer schools, spent time in different research groups, shared office and lab spaces with many colleagues of different seniority. Established scholars have put their reputations on the line, by stating in their letters of recommendation on her behalf that she has all that it takes to serve as an academic.
The likelihood of such a candidate displaying some unusually serious communication difficulties, surprising gaps of knowledge, particularly poor people skills or abrasive character traits, or any other shortcoming that could irreparably impair her ability to serve effectively in the capacity for which she is interviewed, is very low . Based on my personal observation, I would say that 95% of faculty candidates who make it all the way to the interview stage are competent, capable of the job, and could serve adequately to the satisfaction of the hiring institution.
Obviously, that is not to say that all candidates are alike. On each and every one of them, each and every one of us will have a personal opinion, possibly a strong one, but opinions over a single candidate will be widely different across members of a search committee, let alone an entire department. This becomes especially true when comparing a handful of applicants whose research records are all distinguished, by any accepted, reasonable scholarly metric. At that point, what I like to refer to as the “unmeasurables” come into play. One person’s “fire in the belly” will be someone else’s “aggressiveness”, what is perceived by some as “professional”, is lamented by others as “uptight”, “down to earth” to him is “sloppy” to her, and so on. It is the very nature of the process, conducted by humans and therefore subjective and intrinsically imperfect, that makes reaching a consensus on one person essentially impossible, in the vast majority of cases. That means in turn, that in the vast majority of cases the person who will receive the first offer is not unanimously perceived as the best candidate by the whole department, but at best by a majority thereof (and often times, just by an influential minority) .
This is good news for interviewees — they need not stress about “winning the contest”, they should not worry themselves sick about what they should do next, whether to use animations in their presentation (or, Comic Sans fonts), what they should say or not say, wear, how much they should eat or drink at dinner, etc. They should just act normally, the way they conduct themselves every day, and they will be fine. What does that mean ? That they will be loved by few, liked by most, and disliked by few, like in every other work place, or social situation of any kind.
Of course, when it comes to making a decision, the members of the department who oppose the hires of specific individuals will use the interview as a cheap and convenient (if dubious) basis to make all sort of preposterous, disparaging comments about them — “he was dressed like he is going to work at a bank”, “she has a squeaky voice”, “that joke he made at dinner time was crass”, “her presentation smacked of arrogance” — but one should take all of that for what it is, i.e., nonsense. It is doublespeak. People making these comments do not necessarily “dislike” the person about whom they are talking, they just have their own agenda, typically their own favourite candidate . Putting down everyone else, in any way possible (preferably over highly subjective, unmeasurable and unquantifiable aspects, thereby preventing any rational discussion) is simply part of the strategy. There is no lesson to be drawn for the applicant, in this situation. One ought not take any of that seriously, personally, or at face value. It should simply be dismissed as silly and unprofessional behaviour on the part of those who make such comments, who are on a power trip, not really trying to add anything useful to the debate.
Relax, candidate. No, you will not lose that job over your yellow tie, unpolished shoes, cheesy animation or even downright bad talk. We all have bad days, none of us always gives good talks, and most reasonable people understand that. If one is not made an offer, it is because those in charge of making the decision, or capable of influencing it the most, had someone else in mind before interviews, in fact possibly even before the entire search started.
But then, what purpose does an interview serve ? Well, from the standpoint of the institution, making sure that one is not falling victim of one of those rare occurrences of individuals looking great on paper, but turning out to be different in person. They are more important for the candidate, of course. First of all, it is the one and only opportunity for a young scholar to check out and assess the place where she will be spending arguably the most important years of her professional life. Secondly, it is important to be seen by the majority as a viable candidate, one to whom an offer can be extended, in case the person who receives the first offer declines the job, which is a very common occurrence.
 I do not have hard data, and I am not sure how one would go about collecting anything that could be deemed reliable. Perhaps conducting interviews of members of search committees may be a way to go.
 Don’t get me wrong, it happens. I have witnessed cases of candidates who had simply “slipped through the cracks”, so to speak, i.e., they had managed to reach that point in spite of significant, obvious weaknesses in important, mission critical areas. I think in the course of over twenty years, having observed over one hundred faculty candidates, I have seen maybe five with obvious shortcomings (of different nature). On those occasion, I could not help feeling perplexed by the fact that their references had not made (more) explicit and/or forceful commentaries in their letters (but in at least one case, the person was actually hired some place else).
 Yes, that includes those cases in which the leading candidate has the sticker of one of those few, unquestionably superior institutions and/or has the recommendation of an acclaimed leader of the field. Believe it or not, even in those cases, in which no two opinions should be allowed, someone will have the audacity of saying “OK, but… I was personally not that impressed” (I know, the nerve that some people have…). Thankfully, in most cases a more reasoned and informed colleague will make sure to silence the crackpot — metaphorically speaking, goes without saying.
 Sometimes, member of the faculty are dead set against having that search to begin with, and pass for “concern over the quality of applicants” what is in fact their intent of simply derailing the search. These individuals will find a way to oppose anyone.