ProTips for academic job interviews - campus visit edition
November 13, 2011 4:15 PM   Subscribe

As a follow up to last week's question about academic job talks, please enlighten me with best practices / pro tips on campus visits for academic positions.

Assume R1. I have PhD in hand.

Upload your brain here please. I have all the books and will re-read them, but MeFites > Books.

- Dinner chat topics?
- Dos and don'ts for campus tours/"downtime"
- What to wear on days that involve airport pickups/dropoffs? (Female, assuming not a suit, so what?)
posted by k8t to Education (21 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Here are some little things:

1. Don't be afraid to ask to go to the bathroom. Often the committee has crammed your schedule so full of meetings and meals, that they have allowed 0 time for, you know, biology.

2. don't read too much into awkward or weird vibes in interviews and meetings. It turns out that many faculty (especially at R1?) got to where they are by being ... eccentric. Academia is not known for overwhelming social grace, so awkward pauses and interpersonal weirdness come with the territory.

3. Obviously don't chat about religion/politics. Asking about local restaurants, farmers markets, schools, or the neighborhoods is good. It shows you are thinking in terms of making this place your home.

4. I look at meal conversation as a test of collegiality rather than academic excellence. Put the brakes on impressing them, and show your interests and personality. In addition to proving your smarts, the committee needs to like you. After all, if this is a TT position, they potentially have to live with you for the next 20+ years.
posted by reverend cuttle at 4:27 PM on November 13, 2011

Response by poster: A bonus question - I have a partner (heterosexual if it matters) and a young kid.

Generally I think that already having a family sometimes plays in a female academic's favor (I'm gonna stick around), but when RC mentioned asking about schools, SOME people say to not mention that you have a kiddo.
posted by k8t at 4:30 PM on November 13, 2011

Best answer: Pro-tip: Don't check your luggage on the plane. Especially not your job talk suit.

posted by R. Schlock at 4:38 PM on November 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have an academic position but obviously am not a TT-sabbatical having type of academic. I had a full-blown academic interview, however, and I've had a few in the past as well.

Dinner chat topics--I asked about places to swim and the group lit up with all kinds of answers. Find something that you genuinely connect with (innocuous! completely innocuous!) and ask about where to find it at that location (suggestion: do some scouting first and make sure they have resources for your hobby in said location). Yes, definitely ask about what restaurants and farmers markets they have. Interesting and unique things to do there often goes down well (asking about what makes the town unique can be a good way to gauge not just the town but also how the folks in the department are feeling in general). Schools and other kid-related topics, well, I think you're going to have to read the vibe of the group on that one (are they family friendly? go for it!).

I think the main thing is to show you're interested in the town, willing to move, and going to make a good community member. The dinner is not, in my experience, the place to address teaching philosophies (though it could happen). The dinner is, again in my experience, to address how collegial a colleague you'll be.

Dos and don'ts of downtime--hmm. Don't let an awkward silence build up in a downtime if you're walking somewhere with someone or chatting idly or what have you. Be prepared for them to offer you a chance for a social outing after the formal dinner if they like you (this may not happen if there's a strict, HR-based schedule they have to follow).

What to wear on airport dropoff days--I wore (and suggest wearing) business casual. You don't need a suit, as the interviewers/pick-up folks do understand airport travel these days, but you don't want to be wearing sweats, either. This is also somewhat location specific; I'd be more formal in NYC and less formal in the Midwest, for example.

On that note, be cautious about your heels on the actual interview days (we did a lot of walking in my interview, and I'm glad I wore shoes I was capable of walking in. Made that mistake my first interview and didn't get the job).
posted by librarylis at 4:44 PM on November 13, 2011

FWIW, from a TT junior faculty at a SLAC.

To echo reverend cuttle, basically if you didn't have the academic qualifications, we would not have invited you to campus. Now, we're trying to figure out if we can envision you as a colleague. I like job talks that are organized and well thought-out, but are also enthusiastic - the ones that let me relax a bit and have a good time along with the candidate. If you're using a powerpoint presentation, bring it on both a thumb drive and your own laptop (just in case).

For dinner chat topics, don't feel like you have to be 'on' at dinner. People forget that a lot of times, departmental colleagues don't actually get to spend a lot of time around each other day in and day out, so dinner is an outing for them too - if they're like my department, they'll talk, and all you need to do is participate and follow along with good humor, answering questions when asked.

For airport days, it's just me, but whatever you'd have been wearing normally (provided that's not sweatpants that say "juicy" across the butt or something.) Not dressy, just mature and put together.

Seriously, not everyone is like me, but in my mind once a candidate has cleared the bar in terms of research and teaching qualifications, I'm looking for somebody who gets my jokes, knows how to relax at the end of the day and has a soul. Being a mefite bodes well for you on these last points, though as always, YMMV.
posted by amy lecteur at 4:45 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lowly new ABDer here, so I can't say much about the interview process, but I will say that reverend cuttle's #4 rings perfectly true with what I've heard about our job candidates over the years. My advisor shares a lot with me about his experiences with candidates in these situations, since it will help me when I get to that stage. Frequently a candidate will be fine during the academic portions of the day, but when he reports that dinner was stilted/boring/a rehash of the candidate's qualifications, the candidates seem to fail in the eyes of our faculty. They are, as reverend cuttle also says, looking for a member of their community for potential decades upon decades, so they're looking for someone they'll enjoy having around.
posted by AthenaPolias at 4:45 PM on November 13, 2011

SOME people say to not mention that you have a kiddo

I can see how this would mentioning kids would be bad if you were pregnant (implying impending maternity leave) or unable to provide daycare. But aside from those situations, this would be a non-issue at the institutions I've been at.
posted by reverend cuttle at 4:50 PM on November 13, 2011

Yes to the bathroom thing. As a woman, be prepared for the other women to follow you into the bathroom. They've probably been waiting, too. Sometimes they feel compelled to continue talking to you. (good god why!!!), so while I was planning to use bathroom breaks as mental breaks, that didn't always happen.

Also keep a snack on you--sometimes you can eat this quickly in the bathroom, but if you're interviewing in a different time zone or are used to eating dinner two hours before they have you scheduled, a granola bar can help you keep your energy up and not bring attention to a growling stomach.

Mints are better than gum, obviously. I always kept a little toothbrush with me for post-lunch bathroom visits. Keep a couple ibuprofin or whatever headache things you like with you, too. Sometimes a change in temp or altitude or stress can induce a headache.

Keep a bottle of water with you. Nice places will remember that maybe you'd like to have a drink occasionally, but some places forget this.

If you need a coffee, generally it's ok to ask if there's a place to grab one between meetings or during a campus visit.

The airplane pick-up is tough. One place specifically told me to wear comfy clothes b/c I wasn't meeting anyone but the pick-up person that evening. For most places that said not to worry about being dressed up the first night, I wore nice slacks and a sweater or blouse. Layering can be helpful--you never know how hot a restaurant is going to be and don't want to be sitting there sweating or freezing. If they didn't say anything about it, I went with a suit just to be on the safe side. That also depends on the time of day and whether you have activities scheduled before you'll get to your room. If you don't think you'll have time, stop in an airport bathroom before leaving security to freshen up a bit.

Don't order spaghetti--that's just an accident waiting to happen.

Dinner chat is about collegiality. Can you carry a conversation but not make it all about yourself? Don't tell them your credentials again and again. Maybe ask about teaching or living in the area or cultural events. For me, dinners ranged from free-flowing discussions of the other peoples' pre-academic life adventures full of laughter to a real grilling of theory that I wasn't expecting at that point, so it really depends. This is a time to take social cues from those around you. It will also be a time for you to (silently) assess any major departmental division, depending on who they have you eating with.

In my experience, f they like you, dinner conversations will naturally trend toward them giving you info that sounds like a recruiting pitch for the area--info on ethnic restaurants, cultural events, etc. If they don't, conversation may go in a totally different direction. At one school, that meant there were 5 people talking about zombie movies while I sat there with nothing to add because I know nothing about zombie movies. It was actually quite funny to me, even in the moment...
posted by BlooPen at 4:53 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

5 people talking about zombie movies while I sat there with nothing to add because I know nothing about zombie movies. It was actually quite funny to me

Funnily enough, this happened to me as well, but it was the sign that the (overwhelmingly male, white, nerdy) department liked me. SciFi/Fantasy dinner convo FTW.

Avoid badmouthing colleagues who are not present. You'd be surprised how often this happens when committee members want to connect to you through a mutual acquanitance in the field, but happen to not like said acquaintance.
posted by reverend cuttle at 5:11 PM on November 13, 2011

Some notes from my experiences, I give these to my students before they go out.

General Notes
Drink lots of water throughout. It's easy to lose your voice because you will be talking all day.

The two most common questions I got at all the places I interviewed were: (a) I'm sorry I missed your talk, could you summarize it for me? (b) So what do you want to do next?

Be sure to talk to other faculty as peers rather than as subordinates. This means watching your voice intonations, and using first names rather than "Professor so-and-so" (I'm sure this varies by field though). Have the attitude that you are also interviewing them.

I found it really useful to bring printouts of current work, e.g. important graphs, parts of the book I had written, selected publications, etc.

I also had about 3-4 conversation starters on non-work topics, primarily about books I was reading. Word Freaks (about Scrabble champion-level players) was a fun one.

Be excited about your research! You've probably given the talk a dozen times, and it's easy to get complacent. After all, if you're not excited about your own work, why should they be?

Hiring is sometimes driven by needs for undergraduate teaching, so have a good list of classes you think you could teach.

As someone noted above, don't check-in your luggage unless you absolutely have to. For one of my interviews, I had to check-in my luggage. I thought one of my connections was too tight, and so I ended up buying some extra clothes at the airport just in case. I turned out to be right.

If you are vegetarian or have other dietary restrictions, be sure to let your host know in advance.

Try to get a list of people you will be talking to in advance, so you can read about their research while on the plane.

Try to get your interview talk scheduled early in your visit, otherwise your first few one-on-ones will be about what you will be talking about anyway.

Basically, most departments will have three kinds of people: those who champion you, those who think they can work with you later on, and those who will be there but don't have many interactions with you. Try to avoid making any enemies or naysayers.

Lastly, faculty job interviews were probably the most fun I had as a grad student, since I could talk with a bunch of incredible folk and see what they were up to. This attitude really helped me maintain a high level of energy throughout the process.

For your job talk itself:
The job talk is an opportunity to educate people, to demonstrate that you can teach, and to demonstrate that you can do good research.

The Q&A session of your job talk is very important. Don't be argumentative.

During your job talk, be sure to say "I" versus "we", so it's very clear what part of the work you did. This is pretty much the only time in your life you do this in scientific presentations.

Different places have different cultures. Some are quite aggressive, and can knock you off-balance if you're not careful. It's ok to defer questions to the end, especially if you are not on pace to finish. Keep in mind peak-end heuristic, you don't want the last few minutes being rushed.

Don't show weakness, indecision, or uncertainty. You are the expert in this area, and odds are extremely high you know more than anyone else in the room.

Keep some anecdotes or jokes ready in case you need to stall or wait.

Watch your body language. be sure to treat the other faculty as peers, not as superiors or subordinates.

For your offers:
Don't forget that you have the most leverage right before you sign an offer.

Be very clear about what your needs are up-front, especially if it's a two-body problem.

Once you get offers, be honest. If you know for sure you won't accept, tell them as soon as possible.

Negotiations can also cause problems if you negotiate hard on some things and not accept the position there. Keep in mind that these people will still be colleagues (or even reviewers!) on your work later on.
posted by jasonhong at 5:22 PM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

1. Maybe this is so obvious that it doesn't need mentioning, but the most important thing I did before each campus visit was print out and scan a recent paper or two by as many members of the faculty as I could. There is no more successful conversation starter than "I found your paper about non-Borromean fluid flow in the intermediate-viscosity regime really fascinating, and I wonder if there's any chance the techniques you developed could improve the results of Sorbo et al on ultrametric turbulence?" The people in your area probably already want to hire you -- the people in nearby areas may need more convincing that you'd be a fun person to be around.

2. Asking about things like schools can be a little delicate. The upside is that it shows you're truly interested. The downside is that it can sound like you're assuming you've got the offer in the bag, and are already deciding whether to accept. I'm not sure what direct advice to give you, except that, in my experience, people on the hiring faculty will go out of their way to tell you things like how great the schools are, and once someone else has opened the conversation, you can ask whatever you want, thus showing your real interest without sounding presumptuous.
posted by escabeche at 5:33 PM on November 13, 2011

You've gotten some really good advice here about many things, but I disagree with the general recommendations about discussing family and kids. There is a LOT of sexism in academia. Being a woman academic and having a partner and child will be viewed as a negative by MANY people. I would definitely not say that you have a child. Having a family definitely does NOT look good for a woman in the eyes of many older faculty members, they will worry that you are not serious and will quit your job to stay home with your child. I am not joking. This worry has been expressed to me by faculty members about women job candidates. If your partner has a highly portable job and is very happy to move with you to the town where you are interviewing, then I would mention your partner. Otherwise I would not mention your partner, as a woman having a family really works against you. In my job search, I made the decision not to bring up my partner in my interviews for a first academic job. I was later told explicitly by a faculty member in my department that I would not have been offered the (great) job that I ultimately took if they had known about my partner.

You should be aware that it is illegal for you to be asked during the interview if you are married/have a partner/have kids, but that 90% of the time you will be asked this illegal question anyway. If you choose to go into the interview with a plan not to disclose, you should think about how you will handle these questions. I would respond with a neutral non-answer like "Why do you ask?" or change the subject to start talking about how interested I am in the town.

To answer some of your other questions: I recommend dress pants and a knit top or sweater for the airport/more casual days.

Showing that you are seriously interested in the university and town is quite important on interviews. If you currently live in a big city and the campus is in a small town, people will assume that you don't want to move there. Talking about the drawbacks of where you currently live and how much you'd like to move to this town is a good idea. A great conversation starter at dinners that also shows your interest in the area is to ask what the good neighborhoods in the area are/what housing prices are like in the area/where people at the dinner live and what they think of their neighborhoods/what things people like best about living in the town.

And to echo some great tips from above, drinking a lot of water, wearing comfortable shoes, and looking up some recent publications from each person you're going to meet are all absolutely essential things to do.
posted by medusa at 5:43 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Conversely, those same grey bigots who worry you'll drop everything for babies the moment you hit tenure track (?) will never forgive you for being a woman anyway. If they're numerous enough they kill departments, so no real loss. Their one redeeming feature is that they'll be retired or dead soon.

Your priorities for a job visit are research brilliance in person, energy, maturity and not being above a weirdness threshold that might mean I don't want to be in meetings with you for thirty years.
posted by cromagnon at 6:25 PM on November 13, 2011

A bonus question - I have a partner (heterosexual if it matters) and a young kid.

The question of how to handle illegal questions is complicated, and everyone has to find the solution that works for them. Remember that often people try to be sneaky about it, asking things like "Do you have any questions about schools?", or having grad students or spouses ask the illegal questions. (And of course, people are also simply trying to be helpful by offering information you might want about things like schools in order to help you make a decision -- the lines are not clear-cut.)

The basic rule about volunteering information, though, is that you bring it up if it will help, and avoid discussing it if it will hurt. So if your partner is an academic and is hoping for a spousal appointment at the school, you don't breathe a word about him until you are at the negotiation stage. If he's an emergency room nurse who has been itching to move to the place you are interviewing at, you trumpet it loud and often.

Someone above mentioned not ordering spaghetti. I'd broaden that to saying that at any meal, don't order anything that is complicated or fussy to eat, because you will be talking while eating and everyone will watch you if you are dribbling sauce down your shirt. And even if meals aren't "on" in the sense of answering direct questions about your research, they are definitely "on" in the sense of everything you say is on the record and part of the official search process. I've seen people assume that late evenings are purely social, maybe have one drink too many, and say things that totally derailed their candidacy. Don't do that.
posted by Forktine at 7:21 PM on November 13, 2011

If the department has a clue about process, at some point you'll be maneuvered into mundane interaction with a department secretary or other support staff. For god's sake, get the tone right so far as how you communicate. It's a pretty easy litmus test: treats support personnel crummy, will likely do the same with undergrads, grad students, etc.

FWIW, what helped me the most: Don't think about being the smartest (you're not), don't try to be an insider (it's way over rated), but instead pay attention to everything you see (about the campus, the department, the students, etc.), and ask yourself, based on your prior training and expertise, how you could make a *contribution* to what's already going on, then use these observations as a basis for talking up the relevant parts of your background, etc. Funny thing, if you do this, you'll likely come across as really smart and something of an insider (whatever both of those qualities might mean) in the eyes of the committee. Good luck!
posted by 5Q7 at 9:27 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

In my experience, most of the time during visits is spent in one-on-one meetings with faculty members. A wise man advised me that it's a good idea to get the person you're meeting with to tell you about their own research (professors tend to enjoy talking about what they do, and it gives you a bit of a break)... though that was only after I had done 90% of my interviews, so a little late for me.

Looking for all available opportunities for bathroom breaks is probably the best advice here, though. Good luck!
posted by janewman at 9:34 PM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Family situation:

When on the TT Academic job market, I mentioned my family situation (at the time married with a 5-year old boy) to professors that showed up with their kids. (i.e., it was really natural to talk the other professors about my kid when they brought theirs to dinner.) I didn't reveal that we were expecting another (born one month after I started the TT, yay!) I also didn't talk about it unless it was really obvious that having kids was something that I had in common with the 'interviewing professor' and was something we could bond over.

Other advice:

In response to your last question, I wrote that I had been on the job market two years in a row. The other 'generic' thing that I did the second year (aside from improving the job talk to go 'deep rather than broad'), was to BE UNAMBIGUOUSLY POSITIVE ABOUT THIS PLACE I'M INTERVIEWING BEING A REALLY AWESOME PLACE WHERE I WOULD LOVE TO WORK. I was more ambivalent in my attitude the first year on the market at each place, and after not getting offers from any of the 8 places I interviewed asked a department chair who I met on an interview and had a good rapport with what I could do to improve. His advice was to make sure I flattered the department that I was interviewing in that i would be honored to work there, which I'm sure didn't really come out the first time I interviewed.
posted by u2604ab at 9:40 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

lots of good advice here. A few things to underline:

If the department has a clue about process, at some point you'll be maneuvered into mundane interaction with a department secretary or other support staff. For god's sake, get the tone right so far as how you communicate. It's a pretty easy litmus test: treats support personnel crummy, will likely do the same with undergrads, grad students, etc.

Definitely. I've hired quite a few professors, and I often leave candidates alone for a few minutes with my assistant to see how it goes. It's a great way to find out if someone is going to be a diva.

On the mentioning your family thing: I agree that there's a lot of sexism amongst older members of academia; on the other hand, you probably don't want to be in a department full of these sorts of attitudes. I'd play it by ear and see how the conversations go with the faculty you're meeting.

Definitely make your own breaks during the day. Your schedule will be packed, and things will run long. Take a few minutes to go to the bathroom and catch your breath.

One thing I really look for in interviewing candidates: do they really want to be at our university, or are we just one of many choices? Have they done their homework, not just about the department, but about the university? Fit is really important in these situations; as a lot of other people have said, a big question is whether we want to work with this person for 20 years.
posted by chbrooks at 10:06 PM on November 13, 2011

one other thing: should be obvious, but be really cautious about drinking alcohol at dinner.
posted by chbrooks at 10:23 PM on November 13, 2011

Hi k8t!

I've chimed in on a few of your academic process/life questions over the years, so I'll put in my two cents.

I am on my second TT position. I decided to go back on the market after the third year at my first position because we were looking to move from a small town to a large city and from a regional public university to a research-oriented school. Because I went to a small liberal arts for undergrad and an R1 for grad, I think I was considered a viable candidate at a range of schools. During my first time searching, I was interviewed by an R1, two small liberal arts schools and a regional public. One of the small liberal arts schools brought me on campus as did the regional public, which is where I was offered the position. Both schools had an "inside" candidate who was already teaching on contract in the position, but the regional public obviously decided to go the other way and pick me.

In my second search, I did not send out quite as many applications and, again, all were urban research institutions. I was interviewed by an R1 and a R2. The R2 moved very, very quickly and brought me on campus before some schools even contacted folks for initial interviews. They did a good job of seeming to want to persuade me to come there without seeming in any way desperate. I decided to accept their offer and was then contacted by the R1 to be invited on campus. I declined that invitation and have been very happy so far at my current school.

Anyway... I've done this a few times and like you, sought out some advice from others. Before the first round, when I was still in grad school, I actually asked the Dean of our school for advice. He actually pulled me up short with an answer that for me turned out to be really helpful. I had asked something a little bit like what you asked and he responded : "I don't think you should be thinking about [do's and don't's]. You should be thinking about being yourself. You don't want to pretend your way into a department and then be stuck being someone you're not, but instead someone you've pretended to be."

Yeah, it's easy to say when you've got a job, or have already become a Dean, but I've found in my searches that it is so true. I have a few different interests that some in academia (and especially my area, graphic design/art) find frivolous, such as comic books. I've been tempted with each job search to keep that a secret, but at my current school for instance, I found out at the on-campus visit that there is a faculty on-staff who worked for the major comic publishers for 15 years.

Also during this last search our family was in the middle of the adoption process. That came out because I was asked the "Do you have any questions about the city? About schools? About neighborhoods?" questions and responded that eventually we would be interested in schools because we were adopting. It turns out that the head of the committee was himself adopted, so that became another connection point. Certainly, the sexism about having children is not directed toward men, but I mostly agree that you might want to just consider that you don't want to be in that department.

So, all that being said... My advice is : Be yourself. Have fun (it can be fun!). The only do-don't I would try to remember is something I try to practice with any social interaction, even in the classroom : when there is a lull in the conversation, bounce the ball back to your conversation partner. I didn't always ask questions back about people's research or studio practice; sometimes it was just about what their hobbies or general interests might be.

Have fun!
posted by Slothrop at 3:29 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

"I've seen people assume that late evenings are purely social, maybe have one drink too many, and say things that totally derailed their candidacy. Don't do that."

This ought to be obvious, the dinner does also screen for incorrigible alcoholics, I've seen prospective grad students fuck up mightily in this way.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:43 PM on November 14, 2011

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