What should I ask at an academic job interview?
January 15, 2014 12:39 PM   Subscribe

I am starting a two day academic job interview tomorrow. What questions should I ask? Bonus question: Do I want this job?

The interview will consist of lots of half hour interviews with faculty members in the department and a seminar for the students. This is an engineering department at a large state university ranked around the middle of the top 100 schools.

What are some things I should talk to faculty members about during the interviews?

Some ideas so far: Their research areas, expectations for tenure, outcome of recent tenure cases, departmental culture e.g. how one unusual sub-specialty fits into the department, expectations for student support, department's average research dollars per faculty member.

Bonus question: Right now I'm 33 and on a stable federal government career track. I do not really like the work that much. If I stay in government I have another job offer, which I hope would be better than my current job but would not have the potential of a tenure track position. But government work is stable, 9-5, pays reasonably well and will likely pay quite well if I put another few years in. A tenure track position has the potential to be great in a lot of ways, but it is also something I could fail at, it is a much riskier position. Should I go for it? I feel much more risk averse than I did 10 years ago...

Also welcome, any general advice you've got for the interview(s).
posted by pseudonick to Work & Money (9 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Their research areas,

Don't ask this part, since the presumption is that you'll already know. The rest of your questions sound great though.
posted by brozek at 12:45 PM on January 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It would help to know why you're interested in the academic position versus the government job. I looked at academic jobs for years as a US fed employee and there was no way that any of the positions that I looked at could compare to the federal job in terms of benefits, hours, expectations, or pay. It's almost worth staying in a federal job for the retirement benefits alone. I would be more inclined to try a different government position than return to academia in the US. That said, I did return to academia (in the UK) and I'm really happy with my choice, but I wouldn't have left my US federal job for a US academic one.
posted by stinker at 12:45 PM on January 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'd think LONG and hard before giving up a federal government job, especially for the vagaries of academia.

Will you be chasing your own funding? If so, is that something you want to do?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:50 PM on January 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am an academic who has interviewed a bit and who has run hiring processes many times. Whatever questions you ask, ask them of multiple people and see how the answers compare. You will likely get different answers depending on who you are talking to. This can let you home in on problem areas should you find places answers diverge.

Here are things that I think are important to ask to get a sense of what is going on within the department, as if you do go and get tenured you will be immersed in it forever:
- What are the departmental politics like? (All departments are political, so you need to know the lay of the land)
- How is the department chair selected? How long is left on the current chairs term?
- What are the current issues facing the department? How are the faculty handling them?
- How are merit raises handled? Are faculty generally satisfied with the process?
- Have any faculty left the department recently? Why? Where did they go? (Some people leave if they know they won't get tenure, making tenure decision numbers misleading)
- What are the hiring plans, if any, for coming years?
- How much support is there for the department within the university?
- What are the future plans for the department at the departmental and university level?
- Who is the primary supporter of the department in the administration? How long is their term?
- How are graduate students admitted? Will you have any say in the process? How do most faculty recruit students to their group?
- How much space is there for research activities? How is it allocated? What space would you expect to receive? Will there be changes in space in the near future?
- Are new/junior faculty mentored? Is there a formal process for this?
- What are the service expectations for new faculty?
- What is the teaching load? What are the policies for buying out of classes if you get funding to do so?
- How is the support for grant activities? Pre-award (budget creation, editing/writing services)? How are the post-award management services (accounting, equipment ordering, staff hiring)?
- What is the best thing about working in the department? What is the worst thing?
- If you have likely collaborators in the department that you might be able to work with, ask who in the department they work with (some well-known people are pretty tied up and can't/won't/don't have time to make additional working relationships)?

Good luck. Being an academic opens up many opportunities, but can be incredibly stressful, particularly pre-tenure.
posted by procrastination at 1:15 PM on January 15, 2014 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Ask about expectations for academic year salary support and summer support. At many places you'll be expected to bring in 10 - 50% of your academic year salary. This is enforced by not allowing you to take summer support until some threshold is reached.

A common formula is: first month goes to summer, second to academic, third to summer, etc. Another university I worked for would not allow a third summer month until you had at least 25% academic year buyout. My colleagues in BME at my current institution are expected to generate >50% academic year buyout.

Make it clear what you will need for startup. In engineering it is not out of line for an experimentalist to receive $500 K for equipment startup, maybe more in some areas. A colleague hired as an associate professor asked for and got a $1.3 million NMR system a few years back. You should also negotiate research assistant positions (NOT TAs!) for the first couple of years, and 2 or 3 months of summer support for two years.
posted by Wet Spot at 1:21 PM on January 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

would not have the potential of a tenure track position

Just to note that if you work for the feds and are out of your probationary period, you have tenure.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:23 PM on January 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

In addition to the teaching load, how large are the classes? Do pre-tenure faculty teach large intro classes? Will you have sufficient TA support? What are the undergraduates at the school like?

Are the research resources (computer clusters, lab equipment, library subscriptions) that you need going to be available?

What is the long-term plan of growth for the department? Are they looking to specialize in certain areas?

Search the Chronicle Forums as well for more ideas.
posted by redlines at 2:38 PM on January 15, 2014

Best answer: If the job in question is not 'yet' tenure track DO NOT enter on non tenure track with any expectation that it 'may' turn into tenure track 'one day'... Leagues of friends in the past 10 years have fallen for this, and in an era where tenuretrack positions are in sharp decline the fallout is heartbreaking.

There are some good suggestions above re: work culture. My comment is about risk.

You say you don't like your current position or work all that much. This, in itself entails risk. Life is too short to putter along doing something that doesn't make you happy. You must have the courage to look beyond the golden handcuffs. If you are a Fed, part of the invisible burden of that position, is that the golden handcuffs are dulling your 'edge', and you must find other ways to keep that edge sharp. They exist, but you will have to be dogged about it. When you have exhausted all possibilities to keep that edge, leave.

Your academic peers are kept sharp by a lot more forums for interaction, their students, getting a buzz off of writing a grant and getting it funded etc. It is harder to find this in the federal system, but possible. Colleagues, innovative networks, leadership trainings, skills building, major problem-solving all offer possibilities.

WRT your current Fed job, don't just look at the job you have, look at the jobs other people have in your organization, other Fed organizations. Look at the big-scale changes you could make, for the better, to your system in the long-run, and become a passionate advocate for that. Make it electric for yourself. DO NOT PLOD ALONG. This is a soul-death, and I don't have to tell you what that looks like because you surely have examples residing in cubicles down the hall.

If, however, you enter your interview, and are electrified by your peers, the students, your potential research perspectives- these are hidden riches that are very hard to replicate in the Fed environment. Listen: is that your calling?

Bottom line: 1st, do your best in this interview as if it _was_ your calling- as if you were born to do that work. The passion you identify in this process is valuable. It will resonate in whatever job you continue to do. Second, figure out what electrifies you. Don't make this decision based on fear of failure. Currently, you are failing to find inspiration in your present position. That is a form of failure too. It might feel more tolerable, perhaps its more socially acceptable, but has real costs to health and wellbeing over time.

Remember that question "what would you do, if you knew you could not fail?". There are as many big research questions to deal with in academia as in the fed system, all worthy.Which ones are yours? Spend some time visioning for a while, and tap into _that_
posted by iiniisfree at 2:52 AM on January 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all, much good advice.

I'm confident the interview went quite well, might have gone better for one of the other three interviewees, so we'll see.

Might be another question about whether to take the job in a few weeks.

General notes for anyone who may be interested:
-Discussion of specific details of startup package occurred at the very end during the exit interview with the department chair

-A number of people specifically praised my seminar because I kept it relatively nontechnical to make it palatable for a relatively general audience. I remember disliking a number of these talks when I was in graduate school because people usually got too technical too quickly and left most of the audience (students and faculty not right in their research area) behind.

Thanks mefi
posted by pseudonick at 12:10 PM on January 21, 2014

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