Meditations on a Mock Interview

Three minutes into yesterday’s mock interview, I knew it wasn’t going well.  Admittedly, this was something of a surprise.  I had crafted and honed my job materials, showing them to three faculty members over the course of a month and diligently following their advice on rewrites.  I had created one-page handouts demonstrating the range of courses I had taught and could teach.  I had been talking about my dissertation with friends and family, preparing to explain my project to the interviewers.  In the car on the way to campus, I was rehearsing eloquent explanations of how my research enhanced my teaching.

So, it was shocking to sit down in the room with two faculty members I have known for years, open my mouth, and hear a stream of incoherent blather come out.  I started my explanation of my dissertation the way I had intended, but I tripped over the first few words, the witty remark I had planned for the beginning didn’t land right, and in an effort to get my audience where I wanted them, I beat a particular point to death, and after that, I was just lost.  I could feel myself flaming out spectacularly as it was happening, mortified and yet unable to get back on track.  It might have been better if I had simply asked to start over, but instead they just stopped me and asked to move on.  The rest of the interview was sort of a blur.  I know I said a few things I was proud of, but for some odd reason, I changed the subject when asked to talk about an aspect of my teaching experience that I was actually very proud of, and clung to a particular idea so tightly that I sounded one-dimensional.

We wound up stopping the interview early just to talk about what was going wrong.  Everything they said was reasonable–I need to get to the point, be more confident about my pedagogical philosophy instead of trying to please everyone, offer very general summary statements instead of inundating them with the minutiae of my research project–but I was still emotionally wrung out with a gigantic lump in my throat by the time the whole thing was over.  But before it was over, they eviscerated my finely wrought job letter and c.v., documents that two other professors had declared “very strong.”  Granted, the task of writing job materials isn’t an exact science, and there is a great deal of disagreement on what should be emphasized and what shouldn’t be addressed at all.  My advisor had insisted that I spend a full page in my job letter talking about my dissertation, and these two wanted that cut to one short paragraph.  Even in that meeting, the two faculty members conducting the interview quibbled over how I should present my participation in various outreach programs, with one insisting that those were special credentials and the other arguing that it made me look like “a grad student who just signs up for stuff instead of being a leader.”  That sorta stung, especially when she read a few sentences of my letter out loud to in a “what was she thinking?” sort of voice in order to make her point.  That stung.

I did my best to plaster a look of openness and eagerness in the face of their criticism.  I kept making eye contact and did not let my voice break.  I thanked them graciously, got 50 feet from the building, and promptly burst into tears.  And I was ashamed of my tears.  It’s horribly embarrassing, but I cry easily, not because I’m weak or because I manipulate people with tears.  It’s simply a physical response to being overwhelmed, to having nowhere else to go with emotions.  When I was a teenager, I used to get angry and yell at people.  Now I tend to turn all of that inward and vent it in private.

Still, it seems weird that flaming out during a mock interview would have such devastating emotional consequences.  I have a history of depression and a history of inflicting minor self-harm, and this sort of thing is particularly triggering.  I knew it would be that way going in.  Granted, these people were not in the position to offer or deny me a job.  They aren’t in control of my future in that way, but pleasing people in positions of authority, appearing competent and credible, have always sort of been life or death matters for me.  I have a preternatural fear of giving offense to someone I respect and an intense need to be told that I am acceptable.  And no, I wasn’t unloved as a child.  If anything, I was probably over-praised, told too often how special and talented I was, until I believed that being anything less than extraordinary was tantamount to failure.  I don’t think I’m spoiled, just intensely fearful, terrified of breaking rules I don’t know exist and convinced that at some point, someone is going to discover that I am a fraud.  This is more than the usual graduate student “imposter syndrome.”  I’m not entirely convinced that my existence is much more than a sham, that someone isn’t going to come along one day at take away my job, evict me from my house, dissolve my marriage, revoke my “adult” card, and send me back to high school.  I have nightmares about having to return to high school, actually, and they usually involve math tests.

In the competitive world of graduate school, that feeling is heightened by the ridiculously competitive atmosphere.  If you aren’t in this world, it’s sort of hard to explain, but every interaction with a faculty member or even another graduate student can be an incredibly fraught experience, an opportunity to prove that you belong or to unintentionally give away the fact that you don’t.  For five years, I think I’ve been waiting for someone to either tell me conclusively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, “you can totally do this” or to conclusively tell me “you don’t have what it takes.”  Perhaps that’s what I was looking for during that mock interview, a definitive statement one way or another.  Even hearing that I should just quit now might have been reassuring, because FINALLY someone would confirm what I feel like everyone thinks but doesn’t say, air the horrible secret that everyone has been trying to protect me from.  Late last night, in the throes of insomnia, I fantasized about them talking about how unqualified I was after I left the room.  Of course that’s ridiculous.  There are no verdicts to be handed down one way or the other.  Academic labor is just very hard, and getting a job is very hard, and it is in my best interest to get feedback from every possible source and trial and fail in as many low stakes situations as I can.  Prior to this, the Graduate Advisor had told us that a student who finished last year gave a miserable mock interview and went on to land an excellent job, so to a certain degree, their expectations were probably much lower than mine.

Still, I’m becoming even more aware of how much my need to be validated, my paranoid suspicion that everyone–friends, family members, colleagues–thinks I suck but just won’t say it out loud, could limit me personally and professionally.  It does even now prevent me from pursuing certain relationships or being totally open in the ones I have.  And it makes me less inclined to seek feedback or ask for advice until I think a project is “perfect.”  And it makes experiences like these the sort of thing that will set me back for a few days, unable to really work until I assimilate the experience and regain a bit of confidence.  As someone who likes, needs, to be constantly productive, I really hate this particular weakness of mine, but as much as I strive to improve and heal, I’m recognizing that learning to work within those limitation may ultimately be more productive than trying to stifle them.  Because truthfully, my innate sensitivity makes me a better teacher, a more considerate colleague, and a more benevolent giver of feedback.  And my desire to please makes me a harder, more efficient worker.  But it also means that I’ve lived with chronic depression for fifteen years, and that depression has gotten life threatening at least once.

I am immensely thankful for the people on the feminist blogosphere who advocate treating depression like any other disability, something that requires accommodation.  Moving forward today, in the aftermath of that experience, I am figuring out how to do what I need to do while restoring a modicum of mental and emotional equilibrium.  I got up early and put on clothes that make me feel confident and professional (this just happens to work for me–not necessarily for everyone).  I’ve sent those faculty members a thank you note, indicating how much I appreciate their support in this process.  I’ll be sending them a revised letter of interest later, but not this morning.  This morning, I’ll sit here in Starbucks and sip tea and read Tim Gunn’s book for the pure gossipy joy of it.  This afternoon, I’ll be meeting with other grad students to discuss our writing projects and probably dish a little bit about the suckitude of our mock interviews.  And I’m going to acknowledge that, today at least, I need to limit my exposure to grumpy criticism more than usual.

Note for Commenters: In that spirit, I’m going to ask that you refrain from dispensing advice, especially of the “you just need to X” or even the “you’re too hard on yourself” variety.  You are encouraged, however, to describe your own experience with interviews or any other aspect of job seeking or school or receiving criticism of any kind.  For the next few days at least, this is a space for venting, not for pontificating.

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10 thoughts on “Meditations on a Mock Interview

  1. hey, thanks for sharing this. i’m feeling pretty anxious about job applications as well. and i’ve had some pretty bad interviews, one of which was actually high-stakes — for a first-year grad fellowship that i, not surprisingly, didn’t get. i had a mock-interview for that as well, and that didn’t go well either. part of the problem was that my mock interviewer was a friend (though a postdoc at the time while i was still considering grad school) so i kept breaking out of character; another part was that we underestimated the aggressiveness of the interviewers during the the actual thing (yes, it was a whole panel of faculty interviewing me). i honestly expected it to be pretty congenial/collegial, but nope. i’m pretty anxious about job interviews, although i hear those really are more friendly. i think mock interviews are good in general so that you can get used to the atmosphere. if i do get called for interviews, i’ll be scrambling to find people who can mock-interview me.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. When I first started to become aware that my approval/authority issues were intertwined with my social anxiety/depression issues, and that these are issues that lots of other people have, it helped me immensely. I find the way you talk about these topics to be very helpful.

    I also identified with your point about the positive aspects – even though my people-pleasing qualities are harmful to me, they also help me to be really good at my job. My struggle in the last few years has been finding a balance (sometimes with the help of medication, therapy, etc.).

  3. Oh God, “pleasing people in positions of authority, appearing competent and credible, have always sort of been life or death matters for me” made me want to cry too. I’m glad you actually had a chance to cry, sometimes I’ve had to hold it in so long that when the opportunity finally presented itself, I couldn’t.

    I’ve also noticed that after something like this I will feel physically bruised. It was no news to me that emotional pain registers in the brain exactly like physical pain.

    As for receiving criticism from the powers that be, I’ve had problems even listening to the kind where they tell you you’re too perfect. Going into the room, I’ll be braced even when I KNOW there is nothing to worry about.

    My medicine for it all is soothing novels, with the definition of soothing to be left to the individual. This kind of thing is the main reason I re-read so much because nothing helps me like slipping into a familiar story. Hope you feel better soon.

    1. “I’ve also noticed that after something like this I will feel physically bruised. It was no news to me that emotional pain registers in the brain exactly like physical pain.”

      This. I had to do really check my physical response, because I could tell that a “just fuck it and go to bed already” headache was imminent if I didn’t calm down.

  4. “And no, I wasn’t unloved as a child. If anything, I was probably over-praised, told too often how special and talented I was, until I believed that being anything less than extraordinary was tantamount to failure.”

    That describes me so well, it’s painful. It’s possible that many of us who go through grad school have the same issue. I too do (did) horrible in interviews (of any kind). I was a visiting professor for two years before getting on the tenure track; I had to be interviewed as a formality (by phone, if you can imagine). I tanked horribly, although my interviewers were my good colleagues. The job was mine anyway, but I still felt miserable. Not so miserable, though, as the other guy who was interviewed (also a “requirement”–we had to “compete”) – in his case, he had no chance, and didn’t know it. That compounded my misery, of course.

    I had one of these “catastrophic” academic failures when I was much younger (7th grade), and I beat myself up so hard over it that in time, I’ve become more nonchalant about it–in the sense that it only takes me a few days, weeks at most, to get over failures now. What? It only took me 35 years to get to this point!

    1. Thanks for that comment. I’ll post a little later about this, but I had a good talk with a friendly professor about catastrophizing over these sorts of things. I really do tend to do that despite years of proof that a single poor performance is hardly career ending. I hope I can get to that place eventually.

  5. All I’ve got to say is, I hear you on needing validation to a point that feels like a liability. I read faculty comments on my writing twice, separated by a couple of weeks. My first time reading those comments, anything that could be construed as approval might as well be invisible. Before going on the market, I need to learn to assimilate feedback more quickly.

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