MLA Survival Tips for the Under-Interviewing Un(der)employed

What’s up?

No baby yet.

In the past few days I’ve gotten a lot of comments and messages from folks in the trenches at MLA, which they are often attending for the sole purpose of interviewing (or, increasingly, not, but they feel like they “have” to go anyway because they planned their trip long ago, or perhaps out of some misplaced sense of “duty to the profession,” LOL).

A lot of frazzled  nerves and general stress and ambient pain, as usual. So since I am comfortably ensconced back at home — or at any rate as comfortable as someone carrying around 40 extra lbs of fetus and who-knows-what can be — I thought I’d send you guys some “positive vibes” and/or survival tips on how to get through another extortionate name-tag preenfest relatively unscathed, or at any rate with the minimum amount of scathing. Here goes.

  1. Remember that the actual Association itself is taking active measures to help you never have to attend again. The MLA actively wants search committees to stop holding conference interviews at candidates’ expense. I am hoping for a change in the bylaws sometime soon, but I don’t actually know how they work so, you know, baby steps. At any rate, if you want to be pissed off at anyone for making you drag yourself to Canada for one or two 30-minute hotel-room discomfort-fests, blame the elitist dinosaurs on the search committee who dragged you there, who insist that anyone “serious” will be at the conference already (“serious” equals “has over a grand to throw down at any time,” in case you forgot), who insist that there is simply no way to meet someone adequately if it can’t be done by perching that person on the foot of a hotel bed while they — exhausted from interviewing eight people before them and at low-blood-sugar nadir — grill you on your imaginary third book. Blame anyone who insists, with a straight face, that a ten-second technology glitch is somehow more deleterious than a needless $1000 trip for someone who makes $20,000 a year. Blame anyone who spews some bullshit nonsense like “the committee is investing a lot in this search, so the candidates should be prepared to invest in it, too.” Uh, no. That’s not how it works, and the fact that you think that’s how it works just shows how straight-up bananas academic indoctrination makes people.
  2. Remember that Impostor Syndrome is very real, and you have just airlifted yourself into a place where 7,000 people are suffering from it simultaneously. It doesn’t matter how confident someone seems or how dismissively they scan your nametag in the elevator — a very large part of that person, no matter their rank or accomplishments, believes that s/he is faking it, and if s/he lets his/her guard down for one second, everyone else will realize just how much of a doofus s/he really is. The way that most academics mitigate their Impostor Syndrome is to kick down, i.e. at you. It can hurt sometimes, but do your goddamnedest to react with compassion to the universal cycle of academic samsara, because everyone is in it.
  3. Don’t be afraid to lie. If someone asks the dreaded, “How’s your MLA going?” just answer “Great!” If you were supposed to be there interviewing but you didn’t get any, just tell people you’re not on the market. If you only got one or two interviews, tell people you have “a good amount” (in some fields, that ain’t even a lie anymore). If they went disastrously, tell people they went “pretty well, actually!” Don’t be an overconfident blowhard shit, but don’t be afraid to project a little bit of self-worth. Nobody needs to know how you’re really feeling inside except your nearest and dearest — everyone else is a fucking shark who will take one whiff of blood in the water and tear you to bits. Don’t let them.
  4. Don’t feel bad about skipping all the panels. All of them. The last thing you need is to hear a bunch of people who finished their talks on the plane sweat through their untimed presentations (15 minutes into a 20 minute paper: “In this paper I will…” Oh God no stop it please) and then get “excoriated” by a bunch of their “colleagues” who don’t actually know what they’re talking about (see Item 1). If you are in a headspace where you really want to go to panels or you really enjoy panels (or you have a friend presenting and want to support him or her), then by all means go, but if a panel isn’t your idea of fun, then nobody will give a single solitary flying fuck if you don’t go to a single one.
  5. Yelp is your best, best, best, best friend. Locate restaurants and coffee shops about 3/4 of a mile away from the conference venue with good ratings and single dollar signs, and go there. Almost always that will be too far away for conference-goers, so you will get a modicum of peace and you will be able to afford your food and beverage. At the last MLA I attended there was a row of studenty places including a take-out Thai that was actually quite delish (and cheap as fuck!), and when I wasn’t eating my feelings with room-service bread pudding (the last MLA I attended was funded and I ate the BEJEEZUS out of my per diem), I survived entirely on their tasty and huge Pad Thai, which I carried out and ate in my PJs in front of the TV. Which brings me to…
  6. Do not be afraid to turn your hotel room into Fortress Treat Yo Self. If you have managed to lay out the cash for a room all to yourself, bask in the safe space that it is, and get cozy and use that time to do breathing exercises, yoga, journalling, or any other form of self-care you choose (I know it sounds cheesy, but all of those things can help you feel better). If you are sharing a room with a colleague, pray to every deity possible that s/he is a big networker and won’t be around a lot, and proceed as before. If they ARE around a lot, do some investigation and see if your hotel has any other nook and cranny that isn’t being used, and camp out there for a little while to gather yourself.
  7. AVOID: All conference hotel lobbies, all restaurants and bars within a 1/2-mile radius of the conference (you can’t afford them anyway, probably), all “no-host” bar parties, all “cash bar” cocktail receptions, and anywhere and everywhere you might have to run into other MLA-ers and talk to them. If at all possible, avoid elevators altogether and take the stairs.
  8. Change out of your suit and into your “civvies” as much as possible, and walk around incognito (keep your name tag in your pocket and only produce it when asked by an official) as much of the time as you possibly can. Without a rumpled suit and a nametag it will be assumed that you are not actually part of the convention, and nobody will give you the once-over and everyone will leave you alone.
  9. Avoid talking job-market shop with anyone on the same market as you. If you can’t avoid this, then just avoid those people entirely (there are a zillion things to take up your time at MLA, so just say you have to go to one of them). Chances are there is someone at MLA in a different field than you who you know from some pre-academia or non-academia context. If you must socialize, socialize with that person and his or her “friends” only.
  10. Beware the Pain Go Bye-Bye Juice. Yes, I know, there are few events in the world more likely to drive one to drink than MLA. Even I have been driven to drink at MLA. But remember: Alcohol is a serious depressant, and you are already at a seriously depressing event. Getting drunk may make minor insecurities major ones, and turn minor existential crises into full-blown misery spirals — and, as you all know, the second you hit 30 your hangovers get worse and worse, and are often accompanied by said crippling depression, which you then are tempted to self-medicate with…you guessed it, more Pain Go Bye-Bye Juice. If you have a serious desire to stop drinking, even just for a few days, do not hesitate to get your butt to the Friends of Bill W. space at the convention, where you can attend or call an impromptu meeting, or just be in a space where people know the joy of recovery and won’t judge you for a goddamned thing.

And, of course, most importantly, remember that this, too, shall pass. You will be out of there before you know it, and you can begin the process of building yourself back up again for another year (or, perhaps, you won’t have to go again!). Stay strong, and I’m sort of sorry I can’t be there to help you guys in person.

19 thoughts on “MLA Survival Tips for the Under-Interviewing Un(der)employed

  1. “MLA actively wants search committees to stop holding conference interviews at candidates’ expense” — I was not aware of this, but am very happy to know about it now. Here’s hoping they succeed with this plan, as that will provide leverage to push it out to other organizations, such as “my own” AP(hilosophical)A.


  2. This whole system is so fucked. For a bunch of so-called liberals, academics sure are comfortable with the massive exploitation of workers and the systematic devaluation of labor.


  3. I don’t know about the MLA, but from my experience at the AHA trying to go to panels was just a waste of hours of my life I’ll never get back. The panels are almost all really sparsely attended and the papers almost always dry as dust. And then I figured that I’d try to expand my horizons by going to a panel that covered something not in my field, but which I find interesting. And that, man, that was even worse. In every one of those panels, the presenters assumed that everyone in the audience was intimately familiar with the details of their sub-sub-sub-field, all the nuances of its historiography, and the micro-debates within it. So I learned nothing. On top of all that, the only initial interviews that ever landed me campus visits and/or eventual tenure-track employment were phone and Skype. So I basically threw away several thousand dollars to lose prep time to go to northeastern cities in the cold dark of winter and accomplish nothing.


    • Thank you for this not-so refreshing refresher on the AHA. Now that I’ve been “out” of academia for some time (or at least several years since I last set foot in a conference) it sometimes occurs to me that it might be fun to attend one of the AHA “annual meetings.” But, thankfully, messages like yours intervene, give me a reality check, and keep me from making idiotic mistakes.


  4. So I have an MLA story. A couple of MLAs ago, I was SO POOR that I ate protein bars and almonds and drank black tea for all three days that I attended (all of which I carried with me on the five-hour flight). It was so cold that I was terrified to step out of the hotel. Oh, and I didn’t have a single interview, so I was just there to present a paper. For 20 minutes. A very expensive line on my CV.

    Another MLA story. I had one interview this time and I remember waiting in the swank hotel lobby with a bunch of other interviewees who were all waiting for the 2 PM interview slot. At 2:50, everybody gets up en masse, heads to the same elevator, and goes up to their respective interview hotel rooms. The entire time, in the lobby, in the elevator, no one makes eye contact or says a word to each other. Deathly silence. I remember thinking, “This may be the most dysfunctional profession in the world.” Oh, and I get didn’t that job either.


  5. The only thing worse than these huge, academic conferences are the sorts of people who are INTO these huge, academic conferences. You know the type. Lots of pep. Wearing their nametag like it’s an olympic medal. Actually excited about seeing old grad school frenemies. Signed up for a bunch of panels just because. Happier in the hotel lobby running into frenemies than out exploring the neighborhoods of the host city. Talking with each other about stuff. Ugh!


    • I know, I know–on the one hand I’m like, it’s good to see people happy; you do you; you really have entered the right profession for yourself, hooray. That’s my better angels. I try to let them win. My cynical side, though…


      • I am so so glad my own field (geography) doesn’t have the conference-round interview. Seriously, in addition to the economically unjust expectation that candidates pay for Round 1, it just sounds psychologically scarring for candidates to have to go through so many rounds. And wait — it means that any English prof I ever meet is by definition someone who has those scars, right?


    • Neh, about 7000-8000 people attend the MLA. They’re not all like this. If you’re a research professor at a top school, you’re very likely highly paid, privileged, and vulnerable to thinking it’s all about you. But if you’re focused on teaching, you learn quickly that it’s all about other people: that’s what the profession is for. And if you’re an Assoc. Prof. you are probably making mid 50s with over $100K in student loan debt, if not much, much more — that’s far better than being an adjunct, but it’s hardly privileged either. $65K sounds great, but in Southern California that’s apartment living at best, and you hope you don’t have to live in a neighborhood where you hear gunshots at night. You’re struggling to stay in the middle class and may not be able to buy a house, and you’re almost certainly not doing as well as your parents.

      The stereotypical college professor hardly exists at all anymore.

      I don’t have frenemies. I have friends, and I have enemies, and I look for ways to make my enemies my friends. My grad school, though, had a good environment among students.


      • Good environments among grad students (and I bet what you really mean is everyone dated everyone else and a bunch of co-cohorters wound up getting married) is part of the problem! Grad students shouldn’t be rope-a-doped into thinking that’s what life as an academic will be — least of all in the 21st century. It’s better to find friends elsewhere.


      • No, I meant what I said, wobblywheel. It was a good, mutually supportive environment among the graduate students at my grad institution, and it didn’t require a lot of sleeping around.

        That’s what life as an academic is like as well when you try to form relationships on that basis. Yes, there is professional rivalry too, not to mention professional narcissism, but there are good people out there willing to help and be helped.


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