Friday, October 25, 2013

PFTF discussion: The Academic Interview Process

The topic at last week's Professors for the Future meeting was the academic interview process! UCD faculty members Julia Simon and Warren Pickett led a great discussion, answering all of our eager questions (and there were indeed many questions).Here are my notes from the meeting, representing a mix of the speakers' slides and other discussion points I jotted down:

Presenting Yourself

Your apparel:
  • Don't stand out because of what you wear - the search committee is not looking for a mannequin
  • You should be comfortable in what you wear, and other people should not be made to feel uncomfortable because of what you wear.
  • The best scenario: your host should not be able to remember.
  • Its about what you know and do, not about what you wear.
  • Practices might be different in law school, business, vet school, etc. - Know your discipline and its general practices.
Note: I disagree with some of the above advice. Dressing yourself for an interview is both a skill and an art (and should be highly personalized). A memorable piece of clothing (shoes, scarf, printed skirt) can be a conversation point, so don't feel you need that you have to dress boring to be taken seriously. This topic deserves its own post, but I reccommend you check you this article at Inside HigherEd.

Don't be someone else - be yourself, but be on your "best behavior"
  • Be positive, and express enthusiasm about the future and the institution
  • Be prepared to ask questions - to learn about the new environment
  • Know your viewpoints on the questions of the day (in your discipline)
  • Keep a lid on your politics - it will not help, and it might hurt. Don't play stupid, but just put on a tolerant front.

Structure of the Interview Schedule

  • Typically, interviews are a two day campus visit where you meet with the department chair, the dean, and many other people (e.g. half-hour meeting with prospective colleagues).
  • Do some homework (IMPORTANT!):
    • Learn about your schedule and presentations (even though you might only get it 2 days beforehand)
    • Know something about the department and institution
    • Know something about several faculty members
    • Ask people about their interests, as well as talking about yours.
  • Generally be an interesting person to converse with
  • Often the search committee is invisible - but they will be paying much more attention than the typical faculty member.
  • The most important people you'll meet during your interview are: 
    • The faculty in your area of research
    • The rest of the faculty 
    • The chair (whose job it is to work with you)
    • The dean (who improves the faculty, while balancing the budget). Although the faculty vote on who to hire, the dean has to sign off on this decision: so be sure not to rub them the wrong way!
  • Be prepared! Understand the needs of the group (e.g. the department) and the reason for the search. Is the search specific, to fill a particular need? Or is it more general: to shore up the group and its teaching needs, to find the "best person at this time?"
    • This aspect becomes more important at higher levels of hiring - what is your "vision" (for the group, department, division, college)? What are the existing strengths and imminent challenges?
  • Things that you can (should) ask the dean/chair: 
    • What is the tenure review process? What is the typical teaching load (and is there a policy for new faculty to have a one-semester reprieve while they adjust to the new job)?
    • What is the sabbatical policy? What is the family/childcare policy? - but perhaps consider the kind of institution you're interviewing at before asking these two questions

Research Presentations

  • You will be expected to give one or two talks (and be sure to understand the purpose and audience): 
    • one for a "general" audience, colloquium style for all in the department/group
    • one or more related to your research specialty - still, do not be specific for these talks. Introduce the field, discuss various viewpoints, finally get to the point(s) you want to convey to the audience. But avoid too many details; let them read your papers.
  • Your presentation gives the exceedingly important impression of how well you can get your ideas across - essential for both education and for research, and more generally in interactions with colleagues 
  • Caveat: being a good speaker is important; but you don't have to be the best 
  • Most important: know your audience and keep them interested

Your Self-Presentation

  • Important: know what your plans and hopes are, and be able to articulate them well and field questions
    • Have a well thought-out research plan
    • What is the intellectual "hook" that makes you so excited?
    • Where will the funding support come from? Do you have experience?
    • What broader requirements do you have? Collaborators, travel, seasonal restrictions?
    • To what degree are you already connected in the field?
  • Education: readiness and aspirations
    • What style of teaching is effective in your field and why?
    • What new approaches do you find intriguing, exciting?
    • You can suggest what courses you'd like to teach, but be careful in case a course is someone's "pet". 
    • Good to ask "what are your undergraduates like?" - this is something you'll want to know, but also show that you did your homework.
Examples of what NOT do do or say:
  • "I'm enthusiastic about research now. I may go into administration when I get tired of research" (said to a dean)
  • Don't paint yourself into a corner by demanding/requesting a larger start-up package than is reasonable. Find out what is customary, perhaps get some input on limitations.
  • Don't give the impression you need/deserve special considerations (the process needs to be fair to all)
  • Don't be derogatory about planned social events - complaining about restaurants, food, etc.

Other things to consider

What usually seals the deal: 
  • Research Area Fit (you can't control this - this is a search committee decision)
  • Whether or not you connect with everyone and can have intellectual discussions during your interview (you can practice and prepare for this)
If you have a phone interview, try to use Skype if at all possible (and remember to look at the camera, and be sure the background is appropriate). Its generally hard to be engaging and sell yourself over a speakerphone.

Be concise in answering questions - aim for a 3 minute answer, then watch for body language and engagement with the person. Your eye contact and body language are also very important - don't look too rigid or too relaxed (no lazing on a sofa).

You'll have to be adaptable for questions about "service" - you can't be sure what they'll ask, and you will have to think on your feet.

Be prepared to defend yourself - search committees may want to challenge candidates. Politely, calmly stand your ground and give good arguments.

The Bottom Line

The search committee and faculty are a group of individuals, with different opinions and means of evaluation. What works for some may not work for others. Search committee members negotiate with one another and present a recommendation to the faculty, who then vote. 

The above guidelines may be helpful. But the bottom line is, there is no bottom line.

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