A couple of weeks ago I had a job interview at Oxford. It was a peculiar job: a postdoctoral position with no formal responsibilities. It simply freed you to pursue your own research for three years by giving you free meals, lodging, and a quite nice living stipend. As you can imagine, it attracted many applicants - about three hundred, they later told me. As I progressed through the stages of the competition, they asked me to submit more and more materials until they had well over a hundred pages of my writing. Some of these materials were about the research I proposed to undertake, some were samples or overviews of the research I had already done. The final stage was an interview in an intimidatingly ornate, portrait-laden room in one of Oxford's oldest colleges.
I didn't get the job. In most situations like this, you remain frustratingly uncertain of the reasons you were passed over. Was someone else's research a better fit? Did you lack the pedigree of the successful candidate? Did your research agenda not seem important enough? Was another candidate simply more impressive?
In this case, I'm quite certain why I didn't get the job. The questions they asked during the interview made that clear. I took a risk to distinguish myself and it backfired. What was intended to impress them ultimately confused them. I don't regret making that gamble, but I do wish I had executed it better.
My research on topic A is impressive. I have several scholarly articles, presentations at top conferences, and published book reviews on the topic. I can talk about it with flair too. In a few pages of zippy prose, my research overview summarizes how this often ignored topic was central to the making of modern ideas about the state, national identity, gender, and other critical ideas. The quality of the scholarly journals I have published in and letters of recommendation from top scholars back up these claims which might otherwise seem a bit overblown.
"Ok, great. But everyone else and their mother applying for this job will have a similar research profile," I thought. I decided that I had to distinguish myself. A typical research proposal for an academic job discusses two research projects on the same topic. To set my work apart, I proposed doing a second research project on topic B.
I didn't pull topic B out of the thin era. It was something which I'd been thinking about for a while. I'd even presented conference papers and submitted a scholarly article on it. It wasn't that different than topic A, either. If topic A was, say, a history of factory workers in 1920s Boston, then topic B was a history of nurses in 1960s Los Angeles. Different, yes, but not wildly so.
The final interview was about 45 minutes long. They started by asking me questions about topic A. After a while, they announced that even though they had a lot more questions about topic A, they were going to move on to topic B. With about fifteen minutes left, they stopped that line of inquiry and shifted to "big picture" questions.
They began to ask how I had gotten interested in topic A and B, how the two topics were related, how I was going to balance these two very different projects, and what the overarching significance of my work was. My answers throughout the interview were quite good, if I do say so myself. But I failed in one key way: I treated the two projects as separate. They didn't understand the connection between the two and I didn't do a good job making the connection clear. In fact, I deliberately treated them as separate to emphasize my breadth. I confused the selection committee and left them with the impression that I was intellectually scattered.
The basic plan was sound, but I stumbled in the execution.
The committee needed to hear about two organically connected topics, not two separate ones. There were lots of ways to accomplish this. For instance, I could have worked in some reference to topic B in my answers to topic A and vice versa. I could have described the story of how I came to topic B: while researching topic A, I came across a letter in the archives that didn't make sense. Trying to understand it led me to ask more and more questions until an entirely new project was born. I could have sat down and thought about some really big questions that pertained to both topics - questions like "What makes a state modern?" and "How did working-class Britons understand their empire?"
Doing this would have conveyed a sense of connectedness. It would have highlighted the shared lines of inquiry that actually do exist. But I didn't, and the fault is mine.
I think that having two separate topics impressed the committee. It showed that I wasn't a one-trick pony, that I had some intellectual breadth. My mistake was in turning those two topics into two separate narratives. I thought that I could fully develop the story of these two topics with the amount of written material I had to submit and with the opportunity for a fairly lengthy interview. Ultimately, however, it wasn't quite enough to leave a committee overwhelmed by applicants telling their own stories with a clear sense of both projects - and the impression that there was a clear direction to my work.
Failure is all the more bitter when it is tantalizingly close to success. But it also offers more opportunities to learn from your mistakes. If I had never reached the interview stage for this job, my hopes would never have been raised high - but nor would I have gotten the opportunity to learn the reason I didn't quite get it.