A Guide to Interviewing for that Perfect Job

history job interview
Anne Lanning, Tony Rapucci, and Jessie MacLeod during the Job Interview Panel. Courtesy of Marla Miller.

By Deborah Kallman, M.A. Student, Department of History

On Monday April 7, 2014, the History Department’s Graduate Program hosted a panel on interviewing techniques. The panel, moderated by Graduate Program Director Marla Miller, was comprised of Anne Lanning, Tony Rapucci, and Jessie MacLeod. Lanning is Vice President for Museum Affairs at Historic Deerfield. Rapucci is a Ph.D. student and K-12 educator. MacLeod is an alumna and an Assistant Curator at Mt. Vernon. During this engaging discussion, the panelists shared their experiences as both the interviewer and the job seeker.

Lanning began the discussion by reminding the audience that, when applying for a job, half of the battle is getting out of the pile of applications and into the interview. All panelists stressed the importance of both the cover letter and the C.V. While it seems like stating the obvious, both the letter and C.V. must be free from grammatical and spelling errors and letters should be tailored to the specific job for which you are applying. Letters should emphasize your strengths, though MacLeod cautioned the group that there is a fine line between a competent tone and a cocky one. As employers, the panelists all look for enthusiasm and passion, but Rapucci advised the group not to use the word “passion” in a cover letters as this term is overused. The trick, panelists agreed, was to convey your genuine enthusiasm for the work and ability to contribute to the employer’s mission; don’t emphasize how the job would be great for you, but rather how you can help the institution reach its goals.

Once you have an interview, how do you prepare? Do advanced research about the organization: read everything they send you, visit the Web site, read their financial statements and strategic plan, and learn about any major initiatives. If you are interviewing at a museum, visit the museum [Miller suggested that students anticipating a job hunt in the region’s museum field would do well to make a point of seeing exhibits and programs as they open now and becoming conversant about those events]. Rapucci added that for school districts, you should learn about the school district ahead of time. History teachers are no longer the sports coaches; they are professionals and work beyond the classroom day often engaging in extracurricular activities when they aren’t planning lessons. If you are anticipating a mid-career change, as Rapucci did, you must be able to demonstrate that you can work with kids. Visit a classroom and observe another teacher if possible before the interview.

MacLeod’s approach was similar but she reported having needed to prepare examples of how her public history background would translate to a curatorial position. All three panelists cautioned the group to prepare answers to standard questions and also to prepare questions to ask the interviewers. Miller reminded the group that the questions you ask demonstrate your priorities and Lanning indicated that if you have no questions to ask that you are not properly prepared. Lanning added that if you are asked to give a presentation as part of your interview you need to ask about the environment. Will there be a podium or will everyone be seated around a table? Is an audio-visual presentation expected? Will equipment be provided? What equipment will be provided?

You’ve made it to the interview, now what? The panelists agree that a firm handshake and making eye contact with the interviewer are vital. This may seem obvious, but it is important. During the interview you must be able to demonstrate what you will contribute to the team. Potential employers are looking for “fit.” They will want to know how you handle conflict or difficult situations. Be prepared to provide examples. Prepare answers to standard questions. Why are you interested in the organization? Why are you interested in the position? This is not the time to suggest that you see the organization or the position as a stepping stone to something better. Likewise, if asked why you want to teach, do not respond that you want summers off. What exactly is public history? Be prepared to discuss projects and internships that you have completed. Another common question asks interviewees to discuss a time that you failed at something, or something didn’t work; here, the interviewer is hoping to learn how you respond to mistakes — and hopes to see that you can learn from them. MacLeod advised the group not only to know what you will say in answer to these questions, but to practice saying them aloud, and often, so that they roll off the tongue easily in a situation where you might be nervous.

In general, be succinct in your answers. Lanning reminded the group that lunch may be part of the interview. If you are invited to lunch, you are still “on.” Lunch is part of the interview and she cautioned the group not to lapse into informality. If you are offered something during the interview such as water or coffee, take something. Do not pull a bottle of water out of your bag. The panelists also reminded the group that the interview is your time to determine if the organization is a good fit for you. How does your role fit into the organization, not just in your department? Learn more about with whom you will be working.

What should you not do during the interview? What questions should you not ask? Do not needlessly critique other institutions, your previous employers, etc; most fields are small, and the search committee members may well have relationships with these places of which you are unaware. Do not discuss salary or benefits. There is time for that when an offer is extended. Do not ask how much vacation time you will have, or whether weekend work or overtime will be necessary. You are seeking a professional position and professionals, in Lanning’s words, are expected to “work until the job is completed.” Rapucci added that teaching does not end when the students go home. Do not ask if you will need to bring work home or stay beyond the school day…you will. Demonstrate throughout the interview what you bring to the organization, not how the position is perfect for you. When the interview is over, Miller reminded the group that it is not truly over until you are back at home. Do not get on your cell phone in the elevator or on the way to your car to talk about how the interview went: you never know who may on that elevator, or parked next to you.

All of the panelists agreed that sending a thank you note following the interview is important. The panel urged students to remember that, whether or not you land the job, the experience of the application and interview is all part of your professional networking. Even if you aren’t offered the position, you are introducing yourself to a community that may well contain future potential employers or colleagues somewhere down the road. Conduct yourself accordingly before, during, and after the application process.

In closing, Miller reminded the group that everyone who made it to the interview process has the same “cake” — that is, the search committee thinks you have the skills necessary to do the job — it is the “icing” that you bring to the interview that sets you apart from the other candidates.

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