A Harvard Business School professor says you should think of job interviews as dates

Do I have food in my teeth?
Do I have food in my teeth?
Image: Unsplash / Tim Gouw
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If you think looking for a job in your profession is difficult, try being an accounting PhD looking for work in academia.

Harvard Business School assistant professor Ethan Rouen advises job hunters to start a physical exercise regimen to prepare, be ready with a healthy-eating strategy, and develop a hobby—all to face weeks on the road interviewing at far-flung institutions. Rouen teaches in the Accounting and Management Unit, having recently completed his own job hunt, which brought him to Harvard.

Although his advice in the just-published The Accounting Rookie Job Market: A Practitioner’s Guide is targeted at young accounting PhD job seekers looking for teaching and research positions, we thought it contained interesting advice that could help out many job-seekers. We asked Rouen about his job tips in this email Q&A.

Sean Silverthorne: Why did you write this paper?

Ethan Rouen: I wrote this paper for two reasons. First, one of my advisers (former HBS professor) Fabrizio Ferri made me promise I’d write about my experience for future job seekers, and I couldn’t say no to him because he had spent so many hours helping me prepare…What started as an informal memo kept getting longer, and I finally realized I might be able to do a service by putting all this information into one package.

Silverthorne: Is the academic job market for accounting PhDs a difficult field to break into?

Rouen: Every year, people say the accounting job market is getting tougher, but compared to other fields in academia, it’s still a golden era for graduating students. Accounting remains an incredibly popular undergraduate major, so there continues to be demand for quality teachers.

Silverthorne: Before we talk about your advice, I should note that most of our readers aren’t accounting PhDs. Do you think some of your tips could serve job seekers in other endeavors?

Rouen: My first tip would be to get an accounting PhD because it is the best job in the world! But seriously, I do believe that thinking about a job as a relationship could serve job seekers in other fields.

If you are reading this, you probably have the good fortune to have made some choices about the jobs you took or are going to take. Prestige and money are attractive, in part because they are easy to measure, but libraries are full of novels of unhappy people who married for money.

I have a friend who recently turned down a big promotion, which went to her former employee. At first, she felt like a slacker, watching those around her rise through the ranks while she stayed put. But once she realized that she loved her job and did not want to make the sacrifices a promotion would entail, she was overcome by a sense of contentment.

Balancing inside and outside pressures when choosing a career is a monumental task, but the first step is acknowledging those internal pressures and trying to attach value to them. It is a challenge because only you can observe what you want, and others may not want the same thing. My trick has always been to assume (often wrongly) that my desires are shared with most people in the world. That’s why I’m always surprised when I meet people and say I study accounting that their first response isn’t, “That’s so cool!”

Silverthorne: I was surprised by your emphasis on physical training and food strategies. Is the academic job market that rigorous?

Rouen: To be fair, I have no self-control around sweets. Without some kind of forced regimen, I’d eat cake for every meal. That being said, I feel very fortunate to have had an exercise and diet regime going into the interview process.

One of the most stressful aspects of the job market is the lack of control. We spend five or six years getting to this one critical moment and have little say about what interviews we get, what job offers we get, or even when we get news about our applications. Staying physically healthy while I was having a minor emotional meltdown helped feed that need for control. Going for a run or a yoga class also forced me to take a break from staring at my cell phone, waiting for recruiters to call.

Lastly, I had 15 interviews in eight weeks. Travel took an intense toll on my body. I got strep throat twice in the month after I finished, and without regular exercise, I imagine my body would have broken down sooner.

Silverthorne: If you were to give just one piece of advice to job-seekers in this market, what would it be?

Rouen: My favorite sentence in the article is “be yourself (within reason).” Schools vary greatly on what they value in a new hire and how colleagues relate to one another. There is so much pressure to get “the best” job that we are tempted to get sucked into thinking that “the best” is based on easily quantifiable metrics like publication counts. In reality, we are in a creative field and should look for an environment that will help us thrive creatively.

To find that environment, it helps to think of these interviews as dates, where a successful match is consensual. You should want the job as much as the job wants you, so act in interviews as you would with colleagues to make sure these are people who will help spark that creativity. I added the “within reason” part because, as a PhD student, I spent a lot of time working from home in my pajamas, which became part of my identity, but clearly wouldn’t fly during an interview.

Silverthorne: What is the worst thing that academic job-seekers can do that will ensure they’ll never get an offer?

Rouen: There are many, many worst things. Most of those pitfalls can be avoided with common sense. One mistake I’ve seen others make is to be dishonest or subtly disparaging of other job market candidates. Accounting academia is a small, friendly field. Everyone knows everyone else. If a candidate says something mean or untrue at one school, it will get back to other schools.

This article was republished with permission of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, where it first appeared.