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Archive for the ‘Interviewing’ Category

Although I’ve highlighted posts before that focus on the other side of the job market – that of the search committee – I’ve still never been on one myself. I’m sure that the excitement about seeing the other side of the process quickly wanes when sorting through hundreds of applications, but I still look forward to the day I get to unravel a bit of the mystery. In the meantime, here are two posts from Dr. Mellivora at Tenure She Wrote:

The first deals with writing the job ad, sorting through applications, and conducting phone interviews. As a new member of a STEM department of six at a public institution, her experiences are likely similar to those of many at liberal arts institutions.

The second post deals with campus interviews and the selection process and concludes with some general advice. Most interesting in this part is the revelation that in her department, faculty and the chair can recommend different candidates for hire and, in her case, she was not the choice of the department as a whole.

Hopefully I will be part of many search committees before I decide to do something like going on the market again. I wonder, though, if those who have seen the other side of the process feel better or worse about their chances as candidates after seeing how the sausage is made.

Facebook, blah, blah, blah.

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At my current institution, there is a constant battle between faculty members who are interested in preserving the mission of the school and administrators who are interested in preserving the financial stability of the school. Unfortunately, the perspectives of these parties are often at odds. For example, although the creation of programs for non-traditional students several decades ago essentially saved the school financially, there are some faculty members who feel that this move took our institution down a path from which it cannot return. These tensions were present when I visited five years ago, but they have increased recently as continued financial struggles require faculty members to take on more responsibilities without the possibility of raises.

As a result of these tensions, during interviews (whether phone, Skype, or campus) one of the questions that I asked nearly everybody concerned the relationship between the faculty and administration and my questions for administrators always focused on their goals for the institution and how they saw their institution fitting into the changing landscape of higher education in the next few decades. Answers to these questions differed dramatically based on the institution’s financial stability. Those at wealthier schools focused on their vision for the college and ways that they were trying to improve student experiences while those at schools with fewer resources talked about how “every school” experiences financial difficulties that cause tensions between the faculty and administration.

Even at the most elite private schools, with endowments measured in the billions, financial resources affect academic decisions. I am interested in seeing, however, how these tensions will play out at my new, more financially stable institution in the fall. Although there are no special programs for nontraditional students, there is certainly a large number of underpaid adjuncts teaching important courses that allow the school to function. It will also be interesting to track my own perceptions of these differences, such as whether I will see things as less problematic than faculty members who have not worked at schools with fewer resources. In any event, raises will be nice. (Clearly, this is proof that I have already sold out!)

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed to read when you get tired of looking at posts from your racist uncle.

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It is likely that you have read about the job candidate in philosophy whose offer was withdrawn by Nazareth College. The candidate was reportedly told that his or her requests “… indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered.” Beyond finding the college’s response inexcusable, this statement stood out to me because it sets up “research” and “teaching” institutions as a dichotomy, which I have heard a number of times when talking to those from small liberal arts colleges about things like teaching loads. This dichotomy is demonstrably false not only because it ignores a lot of schools but also because the situations in which it is used reveal as many differences as similarities.

I have heard variations of the statement, “We’re not an R1, so…” to justify teaching loads ranging from 4-4 to 3-2. I imagine that a difference of three courses per year is significant, but it is not the only significant difference. Although I teach three courses per semester, I regularly teach more students per semester than friends who teach four. Despite this, my school does not have the resources of those in the top 100 national liberal arts schools (whether sorted by US News ranking or endowment). There are also large differences between teaching at a school with no religious affiliation, one with a nominal affiliation, and one with a tight coupling between faith and academics.

Talking about SLACs vs. R1s makes for an easy shorthand, and I have certainly discussed the common qualities that many SLACs share. Statements that start with “We’re not an R1, so…”, however, suggest a sort of inferiority complex that might be brought on by working at a school that nobody has ever heard of but that could also be linked to the perceived status of teaching vs. research in academia. After all, I have never heard somebody who works at a research university respond to a question about teaching load by saying “We’re not a SLAC, so…”.

I know that those involved in the job market from both sides are doing their best to make a good impression, but I think that making a good impression can be bolstered by having a bit of self respect. If somebody asks you about the teaching load at your institution, tell them. Then tell them about your class sizes, your students, and what kind of research you’re working on. If that person is a job candidate, giving them a realistic picture of life at your institution can be done without denigrating it. It is okay to reflect the complexities of life in the ivory tower.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed.

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I’ve talked about my own phone interview experiences in the past.  I preferred one-on-one interviews to group interviews in general and preferred group interviews where interviewers were in their own offices (so that they couldn’t share nonverbal cues with each other).  While this article at Inside Higher Ed argues that Skype interviews are preferable to conference interviews in some cases, and despite the admitted problems with phone interviews, I am fairly certain that I would prefer them to Skype interviews, which seem to be increasingly common.

While I should probably admit that I’ve never participated in a Skype interview, it seems that they promise all of the awkwardness of a phone interview with a visual aid and the potential for technical difficulties.  Does being able to see somebody’s head and shoulders give you a better idea of that person’s ability as a teacher or researcher?  I would be interested in hearing about actual (as opposed to speculative) experiences with Skype interviews.

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When I was on the job market, I had an interview at a school that was ranked much higher than the school at which I accepted a position.  Because the school was also in a less-desirable location I thought at the time that if I had received an offer I would have had a difficult choice between that school and my current employer.  Of course, I didn’t have to make that decision but I did wonder about the candidate who was offered the job.  In the fall I checked the websites of a few schools that had interviewed me in an effort to see who had eventually been hired but none of them had been updated.

I had forgotten about this curiosity until a few days ago when something reminded me of a faculty member at one of those schools and I returned to the websites to look again.  Regarding the position at the highly-ranked school all I can say is that I apparently never needed to worry about making a choice because the person that was hired has qualifications that far exceed my own, to the point that I am not sure why I was interviewed at all.  Of course, even at a highly-ranked SLAC there is the potential worry on the part of hiring committees that a promising candidate will accept the job only to leave after a few years and continued success, but the gulf between my modest C.V. and that of this other person causes me to question whether they would have offered me the job even in the event that all other candidates declined.

In the end, I suppose that there are two ways to look at this situation.  The first is that I never had a chance (all the more reason not to spend time worrying about things that you cannot control while on the job market).  The second is that my meeting with this department at the ASA Employment Service and my relatively interesting dissertation topic carried me much farther than I expected them to.  Of course, the most charismatic person in the world is no match for a killer C.V.

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Interview season is quickly approaching for the five schools that are hiring sociologists this year.  If you are fortunate enough to land one of these interviews, you don’t want to blow your opportunity by doing something stupid while eating a meal.  I always thought this was the kind of thing that graduate programs told their students, but given that others I know had vastly different graduate school experiences, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to pass this sort of information along.  With this in mind, a recent Inside Higher Ed post has some helpful advice about what to do (and not to do) while eating with potential colleagues.  Some highlights:

Choose an item priced in the middle range of the menu offerings. You need not order the least expensive, but do not order the most expensive item. Accept menu items “as is.” Refrain from asking for substitutions or asking that ingredients be excluded.

If you choose to drink any kind of alcohol, be sure to drink slowly — and be mindful of your drinking. Have a glass of water along with your beer, wine, or mixed drink. Given the circumstances of interviewing, remember that you may be tired, possibly hungry, and perhaps nervous — all factors that have implications for consuming alcohol.

To this I would add not to eat anything complicated (crab legs) or likely to fling sauce on your interview attire (spaghetti).  In the case of alcohol, the advice I’ve received is to let others order first and follow their lead.  You do not want to be the only person at the table ordering alcohol, but if somebody orders a bottle of wine for the table there is some social pressure to join in.  At one of my interviews last year there was about a glass worth of wine left over at the end of the meal and I was encouraged to take it with me to my hotel to unwind before the next day’s interviewing.  I did.

Even more important than what you eat and drink is this piece of advice:

As a job candidate, you will be focused on wanting to make a good impression and getting the offer. However, remember that you too are conducting an interview. Sharing a meal with prospective colleagues offers an opportunity for you to consider if you want to work with them. Here are some questions to consider:

  • What is their rapport?
  • Are they respectful of each other?
  • Do they seem to get along well?
  • Are they collegial?
  • These are people you might be working with closely for many years. They need not become your close friends, but you do want to have a sense of working successfully with them as colleagues.

    Cheers!

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    One of the bizarre aspects of the job market is that everybody wants to be everybody else’s first choice.  Sure, candidates want to be a department’s first choice, but departments also want to be the first choice of candidates.  Because members of a department typically don’t know to whom an offer will be extended, they need to be nice to everybody to increase the chances that they are their first choice’s first choice.  Thus, departments and candidates alike may sugar coat certain things during a campus interview, leaving the reality for subsequent interactions.

    I recently had the first of those subsequent interactions during a trip to look for housing.  On my trip I visited campus again, stopped by the provost’s office, met with HR and had dinner with a faculty member.  Each of these interactions held the possibility for some of the sheen of my successful candidacy and their successful sales pitches for the school and department to wear away.  Second impressions of the school centered on the effects of the current economy.  Compared to a number of other schools, things are not particularly bleak, but faculty members will not be receiving cost-of-living raises this year.  I can’t be sure of their second impressions of me, but they may have noticed that I’m more of a sarcastic asshole than they originally anticipated.

    Largely, my second impressions reinforced my first impressions:  the school seems to be on solid financial footing;  the sense of community that was conveyed during my interview remained;  and my future coworker was friendly and gave me good advice about navigating the transition from graduate student to junior faculty member.  He may regret this in the fall when the sarcastic asshole down the hall won’t stop asking him questions.

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    Unlike Candide or The Lord of the Rings, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not an allegory for academe.  (This is a good thing, since most people would not want to be strung along during hiring or tenure like Jim is in the end of the book.)  Rather, Teresa Magnum at Inside Higher Ed uses an excerpt to convey that, to a candidate, communication is everything.  She has a number of suggestions for search committees that most, if not all, candidates would welcome given the mysterious nature of the market:

    First, departments should think carefully about the materials they request in their advertisements. Initial decisions require a letter and a resume. Trees and postage saved. In the early stages of a search, applicants need to know two things. Did materials arrive? What next? A quick e-mail acknowledgment and a timeline surveying the next steps in the search are deeply reassuring. When an ad attracts 400 candidates, notification requires real effort, but so did applying.

    All of the candidates with whom I’ve spoken along with those on the wiki sincerely wish departments would let them know when they are no longer being considered. My warmest memory from my own job search is, ironically, a rejection letter. A faculty member from the University of Pennsylvania wrote an unusually compassionate letter, including one sentence that complimented my writing sample with enough detail to suggest she had actually read it. I kept that letter for years and to this day I send out a bless-your-heart whenever it comes to mind. Timely response is all the more important now that those who do get invited for interviews are likely to post that information on one of the wikis. A quick appreciative e-mail to those who didn’t make the first cut ought to be manageable, and if you have the resources to insert even one personal comment, you will have done a very, very good thing. If the next step in your search is a conference interview, you might also help an unsuccessful candidate avoid wasting a fortune on a plane ticket and hotel.

    Whether the first personal contact with candidates will be by phone, at a conference, or on campus, the interview will be more productive and less stressful for everyone involved if candidates know what to anticipate and how to prepare. Who will be present and what are their areas of expertise? (Yes, I know that should be on the Web, but it often isn’t.) What cell phone number can the candidate call in case of disaster? What can you tell candidates about the interview? Will any committee member need to arrive late or leave early?

    An interview shouldn’t feel like a round of whack-a-mole. What can you tell candidates about the interview in advance? Will it last 30 minutes, 45 minutes? If you want candidates to speak thoughtfully about their ability to meet a specific need in your department, why not ask them to ponder the topic in advance?

    It’s well worth a small loss of time to be sure appointments are scheduled at intervals that will neither leave candidates waiting in the hall nor force them to meet face to face. Think about the interview space, too. Try sitting where you plan to place the candidate. A large, deep chair puts a short person at a disadvantage. You simply can’t sit in such a chair wearing certain kinds of skirts. Three committee members once sat facing me with their backs to a bright window. All I could see were silhouettes. To this day, I have no idea who they were.

    No one should have to say so, but committee members should introduce themselves and provide water. They should not eat, doze, complain about exhaustion, check e-mail on a Blackberry, or leave a cell phone ringer in action. They should be welcoming even if this is the 15th candidate in two days. Apparently the question — “Why would anyone want to work on this topic?” — is a frequent opening gambit at interviews. Surely rigorous doesn’t have to be rude.

    For those who interview at conferences, I can’t resist sharing a pet peeve. What would possess a department to invite all the people they’ve interviewed to the same party? Misery really doesn’t love company (and probably the last thing Misery needs is a free drink). Candidates wryly glad-handing strangers — faculty members? competitors? alumni? — at such parties must assume they’ve been lured to some dreadful version of an academic reality show just before being voted off to oblivion.

    Finally, at the end of the interview, offer an updated timeline. Why subject someone to slow torture when you can explain that no decision will be made about the next stage of the search for two weeks or a month? Once you do decide whom to bring to campus, the other candidates would appreciate being told they are no longer being considered so that they can move on to other hopes and dreams.

    To this list, I would add that faculty should not make offers that candidates will be reluctant to refuse.  On one of my campus visits I had an hour or so between my meetings and dinner that I was going to spend trying to regain my sense of time and place until the faculty member who was dropping me off at my hotel said that he was going to spend the intervening time getting coffee and asked if I would like to join him.  Because I was in “please everybody” mode, I accepted although I was really looking forward to some time that I didn’t have to spend being “on.”  After I accepted he said that if he were a candidate he would have chosen to spend the time alone!  While I’m sure his intentions were good, I wish he would have recognized this fact beforehand and resisted the invitation.

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    I know that in the current economic climate the title of this post seems ludicrous, but I did it.  The two job offers I note in my summary of job market success did not overlap.  I had to turn down the first before I received the second.  Obviously, I would have preferred to have the offers at the same time, but I felt at the time that I made the right decision based on the information I had, and I was happy to accept the second offer that I received.  In order to make the following clearer, it may help to think of the four liberal arts schools where I interviewed in the order I visited them:

    • School 1: Visited in week 1
    • School 2: Visited in week 1 immediately after School 1
    • School 3: Visited in week 3
    • School 4: Visited in week 4

    I received a job offer from School 1 on a Tuesday the week after I had completed back-to-back campus visits at Schools 1 and 2 (if you value your emotional stability, I would advise against back-to-back visits).  The visit had gone well, the faculty were friendly, and I thought that I could be happy living in this area and working at School 1.  The problem was School 1’s desired time frame.  They wanted me to respond within a week but I had already scheduled interviews at Schools 3 and 4 and felt that it was unfair to me and those schools to cancel the visits.  School 1 extended the deadline, but only by three days (to the end of week 3).

    The new deadline meant that I would have to respond to School 1 on the day I completed my interview at School 3 (clearly before I would hear from them about an offer) and before my interview at School 4.  If School 1 would have been my dream job, these timing issues may not have been a concern.  Unfortunately, while I thought I could be happy there, the teaching load was a little higher than I desired.  After discussing the issue with my advisor, he supported my belief that I should probably turn down School 1’s offer.

    For me, the biggest issue was pressure.  I felt like School 1 was putting an extreme amount of pressure on me to decide before I had finished my scheduled visits and I didn’t think that I would be happy with an acceptance in that situation – I figured that accepting an offer is supposed to make you excited, not angry.  My advisor also pointed out that, given the teaching load, it would be hard to publish enough to get a different job in the future if things didn’t go as well as I anticipated.

    I waited until the day of the deadline to call School 1 back, figuring that if I had heard by then that School 2 didn’t want me and if the School 3 interview was a disaster, I could still accept the offer.  I didn’t hear from School 2 but the School 3 interview wasn’t a disaster and I still had the School 4 interview coming up, so I told School 1 (from the airport) that I was had to decline their offer because of the timeline they had given me.  At that point, I had no idea if I would receive another offer, but I still felt like I made the right choice since it was my choice and accepting would not have been.

    Another factor for me was that before visiting my order of preference was School 2, School 3, School 1, and School 4.  This order was confirmed by my visits, though there were some aspects that made School 3 preferable to School 2.  I received an offer from School 3 on Tuesday of week 4 while on my way to School 4.  They wanted a decision by early the next week.  Thursday morning I called School 2 and was told that they were “pretty unlikely” to offer me the position.  That, coupled with the higher teaching load at School 4, sealed the deal for School 3 and I called them on Monday of week 5 to accept after negotiating via e-mail.

    Other than having to turn down an acceptable offer, the strangest thing about this experience was that I felt incredibly pressured by School 1 when they actually gave me more time to decide than School 3.  Because School 3’s visit was near the end of my interviews, however, I felt like I was in a much better place to make a decision.  I’m not sure how I would have responded if the order was reversed, though I might have been more inclined to accept an early offer from School 3 because of the lower teaching load and better resources.  In the end, I guess everything worked out for the best!

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    Anomie has posted some links to resources with advice for academic job interviews.  Included in her post is a link to another list of questions to ask.  I would add two caveats to this list:

    1. Know your audience.  A number of the questions are geared toward research universities, so you should obviously refrain from asking about graduate courses if there are none.
    2. Be sure you aren’t asking questions should be obvious to anybody who has looked at the department web site or read the job ad.  At some schools the teaching load can be a mystery, while others state it in their posting.  As I’ve said before, ask questions that show you know these obvious things instead (I see you have a 4-4 teaching load.  Does that affect the publication expectations?)

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