Monday, 16 September 2013

But what about Stalin? Interviews & making (unexpected) links

Dr Steve Joy

A few years ago, a friend told me a story about an academic interview. After she had given her research presentation, things inevitably moved to a Q&A, where, eventually, someone piped up with this question: ‘Why do you work on Mussolini? Surely, Stalin killed many more people.’ Well, erm... quite.

My friend was professional & stoical about the whole experience – just another story from the job market – whereas I have often reflected unhappily on it during my work with researchers. I mean, how could anbody ask something so fatuous & obviously designed to trip someone up? How does that question help the panel to assess the calibre of my friend’s research? No one could be expected to prepare for that. Yet, recently, I’ve been wondering whether the question was really so unreasonable. Granted, there are better & worse ways of asking such a question, just as there are better & worse motivations for wanting to ask it in the first place. But what would happen if we gave the interviewer the benefit of the doubt – if we assumed that the intent was good (however opaque) and tried to make proper sense of the question?

The first thing that occurs to me is that there was not a ‘right’ answer, and I doubt very much that the questioner had one in mind. It follows, therefore, that what’s under scrutiny here is the process rather than the product. I find that many researchers treat interviews like exams, but they tend to forget what we all learnt at school: show your workings. In other words, deconstruct the question out loud. ‘That’s a complex question, so let me answer the Mussolini part first. The reasons why he remains such an important case study for thinking about issues of memory are XXX and YYY. What my study will contribute to this debate is ZZZ.’ This should be safe territory & a good way to buy time because, in effect, it’s another justification of the rationale behind your study & its significance – messages which it never hurts to keep reiterating.

If you've made a compelling case for why your study needs to be done, you don’t then need to defend your work against the implication that research on Stalin is somehow more important: there is room for both studies. You can also proceed with the second part of the question in terms of the process which you would use (if you were going to answer it). ‘To respond to your observation about Stalin: my work is concerned with AAA, so I would need to find out more about contemporary memories of Stalin in Russian culture in order to make any kind of comparative assessment. At first thought, my hypothesis would be BBB.’

What also strikes me is a handy lesson for thinking about interview preparation, and that is to be prepared to make links. It’s a truism that can’t be ignored: audiences, interview panels included, will always want you to speak to their concerns. You work on gibbons? I work on gorillas, so how is your work relevant to mine? Your research is about labour movements in nineteenth-century Manchester? Mine is about labour movements in twentieth-century Paris, so what can I learn from your work? You study Freud? I study Jung, so which of your conclusions do I need to take note of? I’ve spent my whole professional life researching Shakespeare, so I don’t really understand your preference for Marlowe. What’s wrong with you?

Again, I don’t think it’s a matter of always already knowing the correct answers to these extremely open-ended questions, nor do I mean to promise that you will necessarily be asked questions in this way. My point is rather that they signal precisely the mind-set you need to adopt prior to, and during, an interview. Be prepared to think at the margins of your work & scrutinise some of your most elementary assumptions. To wit: I studied Thomas Mann for so long that I was once incredulous when asked to explain to some nincompoop why he remained an author worthy of study. Except that it wasn’t a nincompoop. It was an eminent Germanist, who happened to work on something completely different.

Try to anticipate to your audience’s needs & interests (top tip: look up what the interview panel work on). And if you actually get the question, as my friend did, then show your workings & thereby show the kind of scholar you would be if appointed – namely, someone who seeks to share & debate ideas with colleagues from across the whole academic landscape.

1 comment:

  1. Very helpful post, Steve. In my recent interview, I found it difficult to structure my answers properly. I wasn’t sure how to find the time to think of a good answer when a response was required almost instantaneously. I was therefore often tempted to start with the first thought that came to my mind, which wasn’t necessarily the best thought.
    I like your point about showing one's workings. Maybe it would be helpful when preparing for the interview to think through strategies for structuring answers. I like your proposals regarding “This is a complex question … so let me answer the part about … first …”. Such structuring sentences can provide a sense of clarity and purpose and can, as you say, buy time. They probably work for a range of questions and scenarios, as long as the interviewee comes across as genuine rather than having rehearsed standard answers.