Posts Tagged ‘Interviewing’

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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Having prepared answers to frequently asked questions on the job market can make the interview process a lot smoother, but I think that it is also important to prepare good questions to ask.  I first realized this a few years ago when I heard that faculty members laughed when a fellow graduate student asked what their students were like during a phone interview.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this question.  The problem arises when it is asked so often that it becomes hackneyed.  The solution is to ask questions related to this theme that show you have thought about the meaning behind it.  For example, ask how many of the students have jobs, what type of placement (academic and non-academic) they typically receive after graduation, and whether the school’s selectivity affects typical grade distributions.  The answers to each of these questions will help you form an image of what their students are like.

You can also ask questions that show you have done your research.  Rather than asking how many majors they have, when this information is available on the department web site, note that you know how many majors they have and ask if this number has changed over the past five years.  For schools with a religious affiliation, you can ask how that affiliation is reflected in classroom interactions.

Obviously, I have not cornered the market on good questions, but here are some suggestions for engaging faculty and administrators in conversation (also available as in PDF format).

Questions to Ask


Other than graduate school, what types of jobs have some of your students recently received after graduation?

How many of your students have jobs?

What are typical class sizes at each level?

What kinds of faculty development opportunities are there?  Travel?  Computers?

How does advising work?  Does each faculty member advise a certain number of students?

What is the process for deciding the topics and professors for the special topics classes?

What are the tenure expectations for new faculty?  Have those expectations changed since you went through the tenure process?

What is the human subjects process like here?

What is your typical grade distribution/how does your school’s selectivity affect grade distributions?

What is the relationship between the community and the school like?

What do you like most about working here?

What is the anticipated timeline going forward?


What are your tenure expectations for new faculty?

How is the sociology department thought of within the school?

Where do you see the school going in the next 5-10 years?

What is your vision for the college/sociology department?

What would you like to see in terms of teaching, service, and research from a junior faculty member going up for tenure?

How is faculty assessment handled?

What is the school’s financial status?  How is the school responding to the recent economic downturn?

What support exists for faculty research?

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One way to prepare for an interview, whether by phone or in person, is to prepare (and study) answers to frequently asked questions.  This allows you to organize your thoughts in advance and minimizes the likelihood that you will be caught off guard (as I was when asked about my vision for a department).  The questions below have been drawn from multiple sources and, while they are slightly skewed toward liberal arts positions, many of them are relevant to academic jobs in general.

Frequently Asked Questions on the Job Market*


Why do you want to work here?/Tell us about the kind of job you’re looking for.

Why liberal arts?


What are you looking for in a job?

What is your vision for the department?

About You

Describe your teaching philosophy.

What unique qualities would you bring to this school?

What kind of colleague are you?  What are your strengths and weaknesses?

How would you describe yourself to a room full of sociologists?

Can you think of a book in sociology that you’d say has had the greatest impact on your thinking as a sociologist?

In your ideal job, what would be the balance between teaching and research?  What % of time would you devote to teaching and what % to research?

Can you tell me something about your interests and involvements beyond your teaching and research?

What kinds of support would you expect from the university?

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you?


Can you tell me a little about how you use engaged learning in your courses?

What do you find the most exciting about teaching?

What do you find most frustrating in dealing with students in general?

What do you think are your strengths as a teacher?

What do you think are your weaknesses?

Can you think of a difficult situation that came up in a classroom that you handled well?

What is your favorite class to teach?

What is your dream class?

How would you teach (a particular course mentioned in the job ad)?

Which five classes would you most like to teach?

How do you usually go about developing a course on something that’s not in your specialty area?


Have you thought about involving students in research?

What do you plan to do with your research (publications, teaching, community presentations)?

Where do you see your research going?


How would you describe your dissertation to an undergraduate student?

Where do you stand with the project now?

What sorts of things are you finding?

When do you expect to finish your dissertation?

What broader literatures do you see your dissertation speaking to?

*Also available in PDF format.

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