Advice on Campus Interviews

Some time ago, I posted some ideas on preparing an application for an academic post. If you are lucky, one or more of the places you applied may ask you to come and visit, often after a phone interview. What are some key things to do and not to do during that visit?

Let me begin with a caveat. This is emphatically not about our most recent hires, and if you were one of our visitors who was not offered a position, I urge you not to read too much into it. Likewise, I am not a great interviewer, and so my personal experience largely provides examples of what not to do (though, of course, I have managed to be hired a couple of times). Most of this comes from being on at least a half-dozen hiring committees and having a chance to see a lot of interviews and a lot of job talks. With that in mind:

What to expect. The academic interview is pretty standard. Generally it consists of a day, or often two, of meeting with people one-on-one. The pieces include:

* Meeting with the hiring committee
* A “job talk” or academic presentation to faculty and sometimes open to the public
* Meeting with the chair
* Meeting with the dean
* Meeting with someone from HR
* Meeting with individual faculty in the department
* Meeting with faculty from outside the department who have relevant research
* Touring the university / library
* Touring the area / meeting with real estate people
* Meeting with students / grad students
* Lunch / Dinner

Few will have all of these, but most interviews draw from this general set of items. If one of these items is not on the list, and you want it to be, don’t be shy about asking. Also, if there is someone at this university–either in the department or not–who is not on your itinerary and you want to meet, be sure to make the request. They are trying to sell themselves to you, and will likely be flexible (within reason) with requests.

Be a friendlier version of yourself. I know that sounds silly, but at this point, you have already qualified for the job. You aren’t there so much to show that you are capable of doing it, but because the faculty wants to make sure that you are someone they can work with. It is the intangible and interpersonal bit of trying to figure out who on their short-list is the best “fit.” So, you need to consider this to be a bit like a date. On one hand, be yourself. Don’t pretend to be what they expect, because that does a disservice to both parties. Moreover, an academic interview is the wrong place to pretend you know more than you do–you will get caught out and that will be the end. On the other hand, you should try to be especially friendly, and the kind of person people want to hang out with. This seems simple, and it might be for the first interview of the day, but for most academic positions, the interview lasts for a long (12+ hour) day, and often two. It’s difficult to be “on” that whole time, and hiring committees know this. Nonetheless, they want to see that you don’t get on peoples nerves during that time, because they expect to be spending long faculty meetings with whomever they hire.

Research the department.The one sure way not to get the job is to show up knowing nothing about the department and the university. Read the website inside and out. Know what the curriculum is. Read the bios of the faculty, and track down some of the their publications. Check out the student newspaper, and search for mentions of the university in other papers and online. Figure out the structure: what are the departments, schools, etc. Get a rough idea of how the campus is laid out. Talk to the faculty at your own school to get at any gossip.

Don’t be shy about asking what to expect. Departments differ substantially in what they expect of visitors. It’s entirely fair to ask who you will be meeting, who will be coming to your talk and what they expect, and the like. At a minimum, you should have a clear schedule of meetings in-hand before your visit. Request any A/V equipment (no, they won’t assume you will use a projector), and even if they say they will have it for you, bring back-ups in the form of transparencies or hard-copies. Make sure if you are a Mac person that your presentation will work on a PC, or vice-versa, and make sure you don’t need internet access for your presentation. Nothing leaves a bad first impression on a large group more than monkeying with the equipment for 15 or 20 minutes because you can’t get your presentation going. Be ready to present without the overheads, if necessary.

If you will be guest lecturing, be sure to see a copy of the syllabus, and know what they will be doing in the classes before and after your presentation. Ask about the number of students, and the type of presentations (lectures, discussions) they are accustomed to.

It may be awkward to ask about expenses, but be clear about who pays for what and when, and how you are to be reimbursed, if necessary. Generally, the university will ask you to make flight arrangements, and will reimburse you for those, and will take care of local arrangements. However, they may ask you to make most of the arrangements, and save receipts for reimbursement, or they may take care of everything and just let you know when you are flying.

Listen. Listen carefully to what people are saying. Be briefer that you need to be. Try to ask questions that move the conversation along by finding common ground. It is possible to do this to too great an extent, and sound like you are a cross between hollow and a Rogerian therapist (“I hear you saying you want to know what I could teach…”), but generally, it is better at this stage to consider this a test of your ability to engage in both small chat and larger chat without dominating the conversation. This isn’t the time to rehash your vita or name drop: it’s a chance to share in the excitement of your field with your (potential) new colleagues.

Prepare your presentation. I am always shocked when candidates come to the job talk and seem more interested in just plowing through the material than in conveying something to the audience. For schools that don’t have you teach, this is the proxy for your teaching demonstration. If you are boring, disorganized, unprepared, or assume that the audience has the same background you do, you are in trouble. Remember, many of the people in the room do not share your disciplinary background, especially those “outside members” of the hiring committee and the students who might attend. Be sure that you have sections that very clearly indicate the problem you are working on and why it is an important one. Keep this as broad as possible.

Pitch the discussion so that it is complete, and be sure to demonstrate that you know what you are talking about for those in the room with some background in the area, but it should be approachable to those who are new to the subject as well. Ideally, it should speak to the issues covered in the job description. In other words, although it may draw on your dissertation heavily, it should be something that a general audience will be interested in and enjoy, and should demonstrate not just that you are smart and capable, but that you are a good fit for this particular job. Be sure to bring handouts or something for them to see. Some faculty may interrupt the presentation, others may just let you present; be flexible. Know how much time you have to speak, and how much time you have for questions before you arrive, and make sure you stop your presentation a few minutes before the alloted time. It is far, far better to wind up short and leave them wanting more than to have people begin to fidget.

This should absolutely not be the first time you give this presentation. Present it to your advisor, your faculty, your peers–anyone who will listen. Videotape it, audiotape it, shout it on the street and on the subway. By the time you arrive on campus, it should be polished and you should know it by heart.

Dress the part. The standards of dress are going to be very different for a chemistry department and a business school, and for a large state school or a small, liberal arts institution. In any case, remember that this is a job interview. You should look professional from the moment you get off the plane to the moment you get back on it. For men, this means the academic uniform: a conservative blazer and tie, with a nice pair of slacks and polished conservative dress shoes. Dress as you would when making a presentation at a conference. Your aim is to be better dressed than the dean you will be meeting with. On the other hand, be sure this isn’t the first time you’ve worn these clothes, and that you are comfortable enough in them that they don’t feel awkward. Leave aside the funky jewelry and bolo tie–let your presentation do the talking for you.

Make sure you are comfortable, and dress in layers, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the climate. (When I interviewed for Buffalo, I dressed for Buffalo, and was completely unprepared for how warm most of the rooms were.) And both men and women should wear shoes that look good, but that are comfortable at the end of the day. If you can’t circumnavigate your campus twice in your shoes without looking like a horse that needs to be put down, you should rethink your choice.

Academic garb for women is a much more difficult subject, and one I am less versed on, but the same rule applies. Generally, a suit is the way to go. Wear what your own faculty wear on their “nicer” days.

You probably want to bring a briefcase of some sort (not your ratty old backpack), with copies of papers, extra copies of your vita, mints (not gum), something to nibble on, and some water. You may also want to bring a small notebook for jotting down impressions, etc., during the day–which can be especially helpful in crafting thank-you notes later. You don’t need to wear a suit on the plane, but if someone is meeting you at the airport, do your best to look presentable getting off the plane. First impressions are important.

Do your research, come with answers. There are a number of questions that almost always come up, and you shouldn’t come up with a blank stare when they are asked.

* Which of our courses are you qualified to teach?

“All of them,” really means none, and “I don’t know,” really means you don’t care. You should have some in mind, but be flexible. It may be that the course is on the books but not really offered, or it may be that it “belongs” to a particular faculty member.

* What research do you do?

You should already have an elevator pitch for conferences and the like. It should not be limited to your dissertation, but express a larger research agenda. As my advisor used to say, you should be able to explain your research to your Aunt May after she’s had her third martini and have her still be interested in your work. Avoid launching into a monologue here, as we are all prone to do when we talk about our work, and instead leave tantalizing breadcrumbs for your interlocutor to pick up on if she wants to.

* What drew you to our department?

“I’m applying everywhere,” may be true, but it is the wrong answer. In your research above, you already saw things you liked about the school, or you wouldn’t be there. If you honestly can’t find anything you like about the school, you probably shouldn’t be there.

* Where else are you interviewing?

Really none of their business. The only exception to this is if you have a firm offer from someone, and therefore need a counter-offer right away. In that case, you should let them know ahead of time what your time-frame is. Otherwise, use this question as a way of demonstrating your ability to provide politic and evasive answers.

* Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

It’s funny, in the “real world” they ask about your five-year plan. Although it no longer reflects the reality of academia, most places are still looking for a lifelong colleague. In practice, then, you should be asking yourself the same question: do you see yourself as part of this academic community and why? The other part of this question is that they want to know that you are not a one-hit wonder. Of course, you probably want to flesh out some of the ideas in your dissertation, but really, how long are you going to milk it? If you have not yet sought funding for your work, think seriously about where you are going to target. What do you want to be known for as a scholar?

* What does your spouse do?

Note that they are treading on very thin legal ice if they ask this, but in my experience they will often try to weasel it out of you. If your appointment depends on a “trailing spouse,” my advice is to let them know this at the very outset in your application, or wait until the offer. In any case, by the time you are interviewing, this shouldn’t really be a major concern. If you want to volunteer this information, that’s another matter, and family issues (quality of the schools, etc.), may come up as part of the discussion of the area.

Do your research, come with questions. At each interview, you will be asked what questions you have. You should have them, and be ready to ask them.

There are some standards:
* What is it like to teach here?
* What are the students like?
* What is the balance between teaching and research?
* Do faculty tend to do collaborative research together, or work on their own stuff?
* Do faculty get together socially? Do they do things together?
* What is something you think this department does better than most?
* What would you change about the department if you could?
* How well does the department support research equipment, assistants, and conference travel? (Often faculty have better answers to this question than chairs do.)
* Are folks generally in their office during the day, or do more work from home?
* What are some of the qualities that you think are important for a new professor to possess?
* What accomplishments is the department most proud of, as a group?
* What proportion of new hires receive tenure?

I am of the opinion that money shouldn’t be discussed during the interviews, and if at all, should only be discussed with the dean, and only in general terms. With a discussion of money comes the assumption that it is more than zero, which it may very well not be. That does not preclude questions more broadly of support and of promotion, all of which are fair game. (Benefits are generally set, but you should figure out what they are, often via the university’s website.) But I don’t think this is the time to talk about money specifics, and it’s not really very useful to talk in general terms at this point.

You should also ask about teaching load (don’t make it sound like a burden!), advising load, and when people can take sabbaticals (and if they actually do). How are course assignments decided? Do you have the flexibility to teach what you want? Are there certain courses you will be expected to teach? Are these on some sort of rotation? Are you expected to “own” a course indefinitely and will you be stuck teaching it?

What sorts of support are provided for research? What kinds of space or equipment is made available? Are there people who will help you write grants? What is the schedule and what are the expectations for promotion and tenure? What are the service obligations, and are junior faculty shielded from these early on?

Deans are often interested in how things work at your own university, and as a student, you may not know that. They also may not be entirely aware of how the department you are applying to works. However, they can be a good source of knowledge of how those outside the department see it. Ask what the dean thinks the particular strengths and weaknesses of the department are, what she sees as its major challenges, and how it interacts with other units on campus. Ask what she thinks makes for a successful junior professor, as well, and how the institution supports the development of new faculty.

Show your passion. Most professors do this job because they love it. Sure, we all gripe about student apathy, IRB processes, the lack of free time, funding, and everything else, but we are here for a reason that is more than just a paycheck. We want to see that you are doing it for the same reason. Most people that manage to actually finish the Ph.D. are, but they may not show it. Show what gets you up in the morning, and figure out what excites the faculty you are interviewing with. (Note: in some cases, it may have nothing to do with research!)

Dealing with meeting students. Student meetings can be fraught with potential danger. Students can be very harsh in their questions and in their decisions. Hiring committees like to see that faculty can interact well with students, and like that students can be more aggressive in their questioning, and honest in their opinions. Particularly difficult is if you are ABD, and in much the same position as the doctoral students you are talking with. In the back of their minds (and perhaps not that far back) is a comparison between your qualifications and their own. They may be on the job market at the same time, or plan to be, and wonder what you will bring to the program. In practice, if you can provide something they think is lacking in the program, you will have a strong endorsement. Feel free to talk about your own graduate experience at another institution, but be wary of commiserating too much. If you tell them you don’t think you’ll ever finish your dissertation, expect that (and anything else you say) to get back to the hiring committee.

On the other hand, just as students tend to be easier to open up to, they also have less of a vested interest in “selling” the department, and more willing to let you know about the good, the bad, and the ugly. In particular, most students (both grad and undergrad) will eagerly tell you about how they would change things if they were in charge.

The Lunch/Dinner. Some candidates think that this is the time to cut loose. In some ways it is; people feel like they are able to ask more candid questions and get to know the real candidate over a meal, and particularly over a bottle of wine. (As a side note, if you don’t usually drink, now is the wrong time to start. If you do partake, nurse a single glass through the dinner.) It’s fine to relax a bit, but don’t forget that you are still in an interview, and that this might be one of the most important parts. Often you have spent time with these folks before, but without the formal setting, there’s a chance to talk a bit about the city. As with your dissertation defense, one of the best things you can do is get your hosts to engage in a conversation about what’s going on in the department. They may not have a lot of opportunities to talk like this, and this provides you with a bit more insight into the social dynamics of the place.

Should you go, even if you don’t like the school. The second job talk is often easier than the first, and so some people suggest that you should go to a job talk “just for the experience.” I’ve never quite understood this: if you’ve applied somewhere, you have at least some interest in the position. Go with your eyes and ears open. In practice, I went to my first campus visit mostly as a trial run for other upcoming interviews, and ended up taking the job because I liked the people I met there.

Thank you notes. These are not optional. Some applicants send emails, which is fine. A smaller number send hand-written thank you notes that clearly reference something they spoke with each faculty member about. These I find to be much more impressive. Make sure you have a list of people to whom you will send notes, and write them on the way home to send as soon as you get back.

If you get an offer. I won’t make a separate post about negotiating the offer, but do negotiate. The Chronicle of Higher Education lists average salaries for different institutions, and you can talk with your faculty and fellow graduate students to get an idea of the range of offers. Remember that the cost of living in various communities makes salaries far more difficult to compare. Have in mind a bottom-line amount you are willing to accept, but if the offer is over that amount, you still have room to negotiate; deans expect it. Moreover, remember that this is probably the most important determinant of your income for many years to come. Take your time: if they weren’t interested they wouldn’t have offered. Read Getting to Yes.

If the offer is still too low, and they cannot go higher, they may be willing to offer other things to sweeten the pot. Course releases in the first couple of years–particularly for research universities–are not at all unusual. There may also be possibilities for summer money and research support. You may have some specific requests regarding computing or relocating expenses that can also be helpful. Note that if you do negotiate these things, you should make sure that you receive written specific confirmation (e.g., dollar amounts for computers or travel) of the offers before accepting an appointment. Such offers can too easily be forgotten once you have moved across the country. You should also couch them in the right way: these are ways for the department to nurture the development of your research agenda.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 6/4/2008 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Alex,

    I think many especially underestimate how important it is to “do your research, come with questions.” I always encourage those that I mentor to develop questions for all the different groups and individuals with which they will be meeting to maximize their own gathering of information but to also demonstrate their preparation for the interview and the potential job.

    Thanks for putting this together and sharing it.
    Clif

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