I say this will all due humility, but I interview well. It’s kind of my thing. I struggle with lots of areas, but being able to verbally connect my experiences to how I could help a department isn’t one of them. I had 22 first-round interviews during my grad school TPE and I loved every minute of it. My Extrovert was oh-so-happy. Prior to this year, I had never gone on an on-campus interview and not been offered the position. Was I lucky? Sure. Was I prepared? Absolutely. Was I interviewing at places that I already felt a good fit? Without a doubt.
When I geared up for my latest job search, I was being super specific, because I could afford to. My current supervisor was happy to have me back, we had a ton of new projects ready to go to make sure I was feeling challenged, and I had just hired an awesome student team. Since all of this was already in place, I was geographically, positionally, and institutionally specific. If those jobs didn’t open or work out, no big deal because I wasn’t being shoved out the door.
In February, I found the “perfect” job. Seemingly perfect institution, great city, exciting position, great department. It had it all. I quickly applied and sailed through the phone and Skype interview. Going into the on-campus interview, I was feeling pretty good. My friends were doing what friends do and pumped me up, built my confidence, and reminded me of how I was already a good fit for the job. I got to campus and was determined to be authentic. There has been an uptick of this term in the field, and I basically agree with most of what people were saying. Be yourself, be the best version of yourself, be vulnerable to allow others to do the same. “I can totally do that,” I told myself. This meant wearing the shoes that I wanted, the fingernail polish I wanted. It meant telling a little bit about my personal, not just professional story, during my presentation. It meant asking questions that I really needed answers to, even if it meant pushing a little. It meant talking about my philosophies on such things as professional staff supervision, learning outcomes, assessment, and living learning communities. It meant tailoring my thoughts to what I perceived the departmental needs to be, but never compromising my core values and perspectives.
During my on-campus interview, there were several red flags that this may not be a good professional fit for me, but all the other “perfect” aspects were in place, so I tried my best to put them in perspective. The department was in a rough spot after a big transition, there were challenging town-gown relations, and the sole student I met didn’t have great things to say about his experience. These may not have been game-changers for most people, but it left me a little rattled. However, since I was being so damn authentic, I still fully expected a job offer.
They called two weeks later and I didn’t get the job. I was pissed. (There, I said it.) I was very composed during the call, thanked them for their time, and immediately burst into tears after we hung up. It didn’t help that it was my best friend’s last day on campus and my boss overheard the conversation. I was stunned and not because I thought the job would have been a good fit, or even because I would have accepted, but because I bought into the narrative that authenticity = rewards.
I think we are doing ourselves and our field a disservice if the hidden agenda behind the authenticity conversation is that authenticity should happen because it will pay off. After many weeks of reflection, I’ve realized you should be authentic to be a good fit for who you are and not who you project to be. I was able to get some great feedback from the chair of the hiring committee who said that everything on my end was great. They felt like they knew where I stood, who I was as a professional, but the other candidate was simply a better fit. Isn’t that we want in the field? Combinations of professionals and departments who are great fits?
I went into my next on-campus interview with all of this swirling in my head. I had been burned by the authenticity approach so should I abandon it and simply go for matching the departmental vision and vernacular? Or should I show up, wholeheartedly, knowing full well that my authentic self may not be a good fit? Should I risk another rejection for the sake of authenticity?
The short answer is yes, I showed up authentically. I asked hard questions, I once again incorporated storytelling into my presentation, and I gave honest, balanced answers, even if I thought the question was geared towards a desired answer. I wanted them to know who I am, what they are getting if they decide to hire me, and I needed to be okay with not being a good fit. I needed to remind myself that just because I wasn’t a good fit, doesn’t mean I’m not a good professional. A job offer is not the same as having and displaying self-worth.
When I saw the area code pop up, I took a deep breath, reminded myself that I showed up wholeheartedly, and if that wasn’t a good fit for their needs, I would be okay. I answered the phone and it turns out they really liked my authentic self. They thought I would be a good fit for where the department was headed and wanted to know when I could start!
I’ve written about privilege being the price of authenticity before, and I definitely acknowledge that in my experience. I had a great job I could fall back into if this approach didn’t work, so I wasn’t in a position of needing either one of these jobs to work out. I realize that many people aren’t in this situation, but if you can be authentic, try it out. I tried it out and it helped me realize that the “no” was just leading me to a better fit with a “yes.”