Advice for faculty position job interview?
April 14, 2008 9:48 AM   Subscribe

I just found out that I have an phone interview for a faculty (assistant professor) position (biology) at a liberal-arts college this Wednesday afternoon. Yay! But I've never actually had a formal interview before. Help! Also, I'm pregnant. Questions and advice requests inside.

Some background: Right now I'm a post-doc in a Neuroscience department at a medical school. This is my second post-doc position. I left the first one with several publications, but sooner than I would have wished because my husband and I were finding living in different cities untenable. I have never had any sort of interview. I did my PhD in New Zealand, where, at least at my university, there was no formal interview process, you just found a mentor, applied for a scholarship and if you got one you were good to go. My two post-docs (both in the USA) have been arranged through networking and chatting to people at meetings followed by informal and then formal job offers.

My specific questions: Most of the interview advice I read online really seems geared to business or IT-type interviews. Do academic interviews follow similar or different lines? Am I going to be asked about my biggest weaknesses, or will they be more likely to stick to asking about my research, teaching philosophies etc? I intend to do a lot of research on the institution in the next couple of days (beyond what I read about when I applied). How important is it to know the ins and outs of the research of everyone in the department? (remembering that we are just at phone interview stage?) Also, the job posting mentioned a reasonable amount of administration (they are developing a new concentration in neuroscience) which I would love, but I have no actual administration experience. Is enthusiasm enough?

When I started sending out applications, I wasn't pregnant and wasn't expecting to be due right at the start of the fall semester, so obviously wouldn't be able to start then. Is this something I should bring up from the outset?

Finally, any other advice for faculty job interviews would be much appreciated!
posted by gaspode to Work & Money (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know anything about science departments, but re: timing...yeah, I would definitely mention it. If they're hiring this late, I can only assume they really need people for the fall (this is the position my department finds itself in right now) and not being able to teach in the fall may very well be a deal breaker.
posted by youcancallmeal at 9:55 AM on April 14, 2008

Response by poster: I should add that yes, I am sitting down with my post-doc mentor tomorrow for a long talk, as well as asking advice from various other friends who have faculty positions. But I figure the more info the better!
posted by gaspode at 9:56 AM on April 14, 2008

1. Even though it's a phone interview, be sure to dress up--it will put you in the mood.
2. The academic scientists should chime in here, but the standard questions generally involve some combination of teaching and research issues, plus any questions you may have. The "weakness" question sometimes shows up, but I've seen it more in administrative searches than professorial ones.
3. It's nice if you know who is who.
4. It's absolutely crucial to have intelligent questions about the department/university/the students/etc. Interviewers want to know that you've done your homework & actually care about getting the job...
5. Enthusiasm + "I would do X" is usually what's called for.
6. The biggest problem with phone interviews is the temptation to run on. And on. And on. (I once saw a colleague literally put to sleep by a dull interviewee...) Because you can't get any physical feedback from your interviewers, you need to monitor yourself very carefully...but without being cryptic. If you could get someone to listen to you give your brief research spiel beforehand, that would be a plus.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:57 AM on April 14, 2008

In my phone interview (and the in-person ones too) for legal writing faculty, I was not asked standard interview questions. I was asked questions about teaching philosophy, attitudes toward university politics, books I taught from, pet peeves about students, the kind of wine I like. My experience interviewing with universities is that it's nothing like interviewing in the professional world.

The thing about the phone interview was: conferences by speaker phone are *horrible*. If you can test your phone on a speaker phone conference call to make sure you can hear and understand people, I highly recommend it. Otherwise take the call in as quiet a room as you possibly can.

(Good luck! Congratulations!)
posted by crush-onastick at 9:58 AM on April 14, 2008

Best answer: Is this something I should bring up from the outset?

Are you in the states? Because my gut reaction to this question is absolutely NOT. You being preggers, or having any other physical condition (disability, disease) are things that rank right there with your age and race and sexual orientation - these are things that employers are federally prohibited from discriminating against you on in terms of your viability for the position against other interviewees. They literally cannot ask questions about it. Doesn't matter if you're due on the day they expect you to start teaching, it is their job to find someone to cover for you for your maternity leave.

You're not interviewing just to teach that one semester that you'll be out with the kid, you're interviewing for a long-term job, right? Look at it that way.

Bring it up once you are offered the position. At that point any withdrawal on their part of the offer makes them legally vulnerable, something they won't do. Then you can discuss things like maternity leave and how they will find someone to cover for you for the time you won't be there, and your desire to be with the uni long-term after having your child.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:03 AM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Check your email (gmail) later tonight!
posted by hal_c_on at 10:12 AM on April 14, 2008

Best answer: Gaspode: Here's a bunch of advice that I think you'll find useful. Although it is written for my field, most of it is still useful for any academic job. Go get 'em!
posted by special-k at 10:13 AM on April 14, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you all so far. To clarify, yes I am and will be staying in the USA. What if they ask me directly if there are any impediments to me starting in the fall semester? I can't lie...
posted by gaspode at 10:18 AM on April 14, 2008

Do you enjoy teaching and being in front of a classroom? If so, consider taking the call somewhere where you can walk around and gesture with your hands, using a wireless phone or headset if possible. People who are used to thinking and talking while moving don't always do as well on phone interviews where they're sitting as a desk talking.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 10:19 AM on April 14, 2008

I'm with allkindsoftime. If pregnancy is a protected condition where you'll be interviewing, don't mention it. They're also not allowed to ask you about it. If you're very visibly pregnant and interview in person at some point, they might be assy and find a reason not to hire you over someone else.
posted by Stewriffic at 10:23 AM on April 14, 2008

i wouldn't mention the pregnancy until you've accepted the job offer.
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:03 AM on April 14, 2008

Best answer: You might find this previous question of interest -- I happen to know the anonymous mefite got that particular job so maybe the advice there helped. I listed a bunch of questions we always ask, with commentary, in that thread.

Re: pregnancy -- in my jurisdiction, you would not be required to disclose pregnancy and you would be protected from not doing so. It's is worth finding out (call HR at the university in question), because there may well be hallway conversations about it if it becomes apparent (so to speak). These would be illegal, but reality is, they happen.

Seconding the advice to do your homework and have some sharp questions to ask. Do some research on the department, know some names of people you might have working relations with, ask about graduate student funding, note some other departments/centres/people who you would build bridges to.

In our most recent hire (last week) two things that two candidates did caused some tongue wagging afterwards:

-- one repeatedly used the word "awesome" in her interview which old crusties thought was juvenile
-- another invoked being class president of their high school when asked about Admin. experience, which was considered to be a bit desperate (he probably gets offered the job anyhow)

On the other hand, one of the candidates was so enthusiastic about her subject that she caught herself and said "it's an obsession", which got laughs and solidified her as a kindred spirit.

Re: the admin experience thing you ask about: don't BS, answer that you "haven't had the opportunity to do so" (at a junior level, they understand this), but, if there are any fairly serious life or work experiences you bring to the table then mention it. For example, I advise my students when applying for work to menton, if it comes up, that while they don't have much admin experience, they do (being archaeologists) have experience with complex logistics, working in small groups in remote settings, working with aboriginal communities, working with budgets, taking responsibility for the welfare of others, etc.
posted by Rumple at 11:07 AM on April 14, 2008

This answer assumes that you're interviewing for a permanent tenure-track position, not a temporary limited-term job.

Easiest part first: do not mention the pregnancy until after you are offered the job. The phone interview is actually good for you, because it prevents them from, even unconsciously, making this a factor in their decision (which is illegal, but still happens). If they ask borderline questions that seem to be fishing for information about your family life, just politely deflect them by saying that this won't be a factor in your considering the position. After the job offer is the right time to talk about health care, maternity leave, etc., not before then.

You're right to suspect that academic interviews are very different from other kinds of job interview, with a lot less focus on personality or on made-up scenarios and a lot more focus on the subject of your research. There's some variation from discipline to discipline, but the basic formula for a 30-45 min. interview is to spend the first (at least) 15-20 min. discussing your research in depth, the next while talking about teaching (this will be longer and more detailed at a liberal-arts college), and a few minutes at the end about general campus life and any concerns of yours. Be prepared to give a summary of your current and future research to start things off, and be prepared to talk in detail about courses you've planned at various levels of an undergraduate curriculum, from broad introductions to relatively specialized upper-level seminars.
posted by RogerB at 11:19 AM on April 14, 2008

They literally cannot ask questions about it.

I'm pretty sure that they can ask you "is there anything that would prevent you from being able to start work on Day X?" and "would you need any time off during time period Y?", as there are plenty of other reasons why a person might answer those questions in ways that wouldn't meet an employer's satisfaction. And while in some jurisdictions you may not be required to disclose your pregnancy as the reason for the above, in many others you would lose the job for lying even if you would normally be protected as a pregnant woman.

I'd suggest getting real legal advice from a real lawyer.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 11:21 AM on April 14, 2008

I have little experience with physical sciences or liberal arts schools, but:

First, I wouldn't think that this is a desperation hire for the fall. For that, they'd probably just bring someone in on a one-year or just overload a faculty member there in exchange for some sort of goodie.

One thing that I have heard consistently about liberal arts schools is that they think they have some sort of unique mission. Not that they necessarily do have a mission that's not utterly a dime a dozen, or that they necessarily do anything to actually perform that particular mission very well, but that it's an affectation that faculty members might really believe in since the idea of it gets reinforced so often. So, look at their web pages and try to discern what their mission might be, and come up with reasons why it's the greatest mission ever and you just love it ever so much.

The other thing I've heard, but this may be specific to political science, is that the mistake people make in their job talks is pitching them at too low a technical level.

Am I going to be asked about my biggest weaknesses

If they ask that, thank them and hang up because they are crazy, or utterly dominated by an administration who thinks that universities are like businesses. So no, I would not expect that.

will they be more likely to stick to asking about my research, teaching philosophies etc?

This. Be specific. Have sample syllabi prepared, even if they don't ask for them, just so that you can say that you'd teach X topic with books 1, 2, and 3 and using Internal Quaternion Theory as the central theme for the course. Expect, maybe, to give a story about how you overcame some teaching problem.

How important is it to know the ins and outs of the research of everyone in the department?

I would think that passing familiarity should be enough for sane people. If you briefly confuse two people or stop for a moment and ask "Professor Smith -- is it Professor Smith who studies bats? " and they don't hire you because of that, congratulations -- you just escaped being entangled with a nest of vipers.

I would not bring up your pregnancy. On the other hand, I'm not sure that new employees get the protection of the FMLA, so you might look at their HR web pages if they're not behind a wall.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:24 AM on April 14, 2008

The other thing to expect, when they bring you in for a campus interview, is to do the same goddam interview about nine different times. It's common to be taken from one faculty member to another to have the same conversation about your research and your teaching and what you can contribute and small talk, and then to have the same goddam discussion one more time with some sort of dean, and then maybe again with another higher-up.

It's even worse than it sounds.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:26 AM on April 14, 2008

I'd suggest getting real legal advice from a real lawyer.

I agree with the seriousness of this concern, but I think talking to the HR department at the university in question would be easier, cheaper and probably more accurate, especially if the university is in a different jurisdiction. All universities I know of have very strictly regulated framework agreements for hiring, and almost all have engaged in some sort of equity policy assessments, which includes recognition of the need to hire more women and recognition that pregnancy can go along with that. So, if you can talk to HR there and ask how to handle the question that would be a good first step.

Then, and I make this advice cautiously, if they ask about it and you tell the truth, and they seem to be taken aback, you can also say, "I happened to talk to HR because I was wondering about daycare" or something, and this fires a shot across their bow if they seem to be thinking that male sexless sterile nerd robot hire would be better.
posted by Rumple at 11:27 AM on April 14, 2008

I just finished doing a lot of phone interviews of candidates for a job in my department, and I can say that the phone interview is a lot harder than a live interview, esp. if one or both is on a cell phone. There's a lot of both people starting to talk, then stopping, then starting again, etc. Try to relax about this, maybe talk a bit slower than you're used to, because you can't always tell if the other person is finished. What seems like energy in person can seem like nervousness over the phone. Do periodic umm-hmms if the other person is going on about something, to let them know you are still there. Give your answers to the questions evenly, then when you are done, stop.

Make sure you can talk about your work and teaching coherently, and try to have some sort of take-away point when possible ("The overall goal of this class would be to help students to ...."). Do get to know the school - I was surprised how offended I was when someone mistook my school for another one. I'm not an uptight person, but I guess I've become more attached to my school than I thought.

Lots of good advice above.
Good luck!
posted by annabkr at 11:45 AM on April 14, 2008

Best answer: If you are looking at an interview with a small liberal arts college, then it is absolutely imperative that you come across as someone who works well with colleagues and is enthusiastic about teaching. Anything relating to your research is likely to be lost on half of the search committee in any case. My first job was as a philosophy prof at a SLAC and I was interview by a philosopher, a psychologist and a physicist. Even the philosopher barely knew what my work was about. But they were very concerned that I come across as someone who could be cooperative, supportive and collegial.

If you were interviewing for an endowed chair at a major research institution, then no one would care about working with you because you'd be off in your own lab, running your own team and your value to the institution would be adding to the list of faculty grants and accomplishments. At a SLAC, you'll be more of a person working closely with a small group of other professionals and they want to be assured you can play nice and play well. This is especially important since I imagine your neuroscience program will be cross-disciplinary (biology and psych, at least, maybe others). EVERYTHING you do in the early stages will be compromising and collaborating with people with other agendas and constraints. Creativity and collegiality are essential. I was one of the primary people developing a cognitive science program at my current institution, and running it was always a matter of being open to what others were doing, being creative and flexible in the development of our new program, and being supportive of the people working within our program. I have a pretty healthy CV, but in my present situation those skills were far more important. At your interview, they'll be even more so.

And a general note about academic interviews from someone who has had a bunch of them. Don't portray yourself as someone that you're not, just be the best version of you that you can muster. You never know what the agendas and preferences of the people behind the process actually are and you don't want to land yourself in a position that you assume you could do and will grow into. Just be the brightest, more enthusiastic version of yourself and what you're good at and let the chips fall where they may.
posted by el_lupino at 1:14 PM on April 14, 2008

Also take a look at the Chronicle of Higher Education forums, which have lots of questions about academic job search issues.

For a small college job you will also want to think about extracurriculars you might do with students - independent research topics that are a manageable level for them and are connected to your own stuff; field trips in the area of the college; bio club activities; would you work with pre-med students or anything of that sort; would you lead Interterm trips to exotic research locales; etc... This won't be a major focus but it would be something you can bring up ("so how involved are the undergrad majors?" or "what opportunities do students have for independent research, is there travel money for them to go to conferences?" etc)
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:01 PM on April 14, 2008

Response by poster: I marked a few best answers, but you have all been very helpful. Thank you so much!
posted by gaspode at 7:59 AM on April 15, 2008

good luck 'pode. you have a lovely manner in person so all I can add to the above is BE YOURSELF!
posted by Wilder at 1:37 PM on April 15, 2008

Response by poster: I thought I would post a quick update in case anyone uses this thread as a future resource:

I think the interview went OK. I don't really have any context, but I had something to say for everything they asked, and once was told that they'd heard enough (!) It was my impression that they were looking more to see that I had thought carefully about the questions they posed rather than my specific answers per se.

They called and five people were on speaker phone talking to me. I did take the call on a cell phone, because I decided to take the morning off work and take the call at home. The connection was fine. Each faculty member asked me one question, then I had time to ask them as many questions as I liked. The questions they asked were (paraphrased):

1. Why do you want to work at XYZ Uni, particularly given your highly research-focused background?
2. What sort of external funding would you get to ensure that undergrads have support for research?
3. How would you design a neuroscience curriculum? (I had a whole curriculum planned... that was the one they had to shut me up about!)
4. How would you cope if asked to teach outside your area of expertise? (My PhD mentor told me they would ask me that, so I'm glad I'd thought about it)
5. What has been your biggest career challenge so far? This one I kind of thought they might ask, but hadn't really thought about an answer. I think I got through it OK though.

Finally, I asked them questions about tenure path (timeline, relative importance of research, teaching, service etc.), mentoring for new faculty, graduate students (how are they funded, how many in the dept etc. etc.), types of committees that junior faculty would be expected to serve on, and admissions profiles of students, e.g. how many are pre-med, how many are in the honors program, how many honors students does one faculty member typically mentor etc.


If I make it through the phone interview, I'm sure your advice will stand me in equally good stead for the face-to-face. Oh, and hiring timelines never came up, so I never brought them up. Thus the pregnancy issue was avoided.
posted by gaspode at 2:22 PM on April 16, 2008

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