Monday, July 07, 2008


Ask and Ye Shall Receive...

Before my sojourn, I asked folks to contribute any tips for academic job candidates going out on interviews. Lo and behold, they did! (The generosity of the blogosphere continues to amaze me.) A few highlights, qualifiers, and afterthoughts:

- Respect the unknowability of the process. Several commenters noted the alchemical reactions that occur in committees, and sometimes at levels to which those committees report (hi!). In grad school I recall both faculty and students speaking with great knowingness about “the real story” behind this or that search. Having been on this side of the desk for a while, I can attest that much of the time, even the folks involved don't know the “real story.” (In my faculty days, I was on committees that, in retrospect, I couldn't explain on a bet.) While that can lead to a certain fatalism -- “doesn't anybody here know how to play this game?” -- it can also lead to a certain freedom. Since there's no set template for What Committees Really Want, you're well advised to be yourself. Be on your good behavior, yes, but be a recognizable version of yourself. Over the long term, you're likelier to succeed at a job that found your actual personality a good fit. If you fake your way into a job, you may work your way right out of it.

- Have good questions to ask. This means reading the website and any supporting materials they send you in advance, and not asking questions that you could/should have been able to answer there. It also means not leading with “So, what does it pay?” Multiple commenters noted this one, and I couldn't agree more.

- Don't come in with Attitude. Yes, a community college gig may not be what you had in mind when you signed up for grad school. But projecting that is the kiss of death. Even people who routinely bash their own employers often think quite highly of the work they themselves do. If you honestly believe that a given job is beneath you, don't apply for it.

- Pitch at the right level. If you're applying for a faculty gig at an R1, it's all about research. At a community college (or a proprietary college), it's really about teaching. At this level, candidates who can't stop talking about their research are regarded with skepticism. Yes, it's good to remain in touch with your field, but at the end of the day, what we're paying you for is good teaching. (I'd imagine this advice is trickier at those midtier four-year schools that think they can have it all. It's probably also trickier at institutions with distinctive religious or ethnic identities, when the candidates don't fit those identities. Readers with knowledge of those are invited to comment.)

- The Waiter Test. I once heard a bigwig say that he uses the Waiter Test to judge every candidate. At the lunch or dinner, how did the candidate treat the waiter? (This also applies to administrative assistants, student aides, or anybody on the lower rungs of the local hierarchy.) This is a way to spot the “kiss up, kick down” personality, which is toxic. Treat everybody you meet with at least basic courtesy.

- Listen, listen, listen. You can pick up amazing things by listening between the lines. Listen for the pauses, the hesitations, and the garbled constructions. I've seen wonderfully intelligent and well-spoken people fail this basic test. At one college at which I applied for an administrative gig several years ago, I kept hearing deeply messed-up stuff between the lines. I decided not to take the gig, if offered. (It wasn't.) Within a year, both the President and the Academic VP had left, each under a cloud. I've also seen candidates so intent on hitting their talking points that they didn't register when the group had mentally moved on. This did not bode well for their teaching.

- Kait had an interesting suggestion that I actually tried once, to awful effect. She suggested “At the end of the interview, when they ask you if you have any questions, ask them: "Do you have any reservations about hiring me that I can address?"” I actually tried that once. My questioner recoiled, the temperature in the room dropped several degrees, and she replied that she didn't think it would be ethical to share the committee's inner workings with a candidate. I retreated to “is there anything in my materials that you'd like me to clarify?”, but by then, the damage was done. If you try this, pick your moment carefully.

- Finally, and this is easier said than done, don't take it personally. It's Not About You. I know that's cold comfort when you need a job, and counterintuitive when you're the one being scrutinized, but it's true. I've seen wonderful candidates do nothing wrong, impress all who met them, and still walk away disappointed, just because there was someone else who solved the college's need a little better. Sometimes I think the old jingle “Weebles wobble but they don't fall down” is the most profound piece of philosophy ever smuggled into a children's toy commercial.

Wise and worldly readers – anything to add?

Good luck to all.

I'd say at mid-tier 4-years, teaching remains central *but* the idea is that research underwrites what happens in the classroom. A question I always ask candidates when we are doing a search is how their research connects to their teaching and how they integrate the two. A vague answer to that question isn't a good sign when you're interviewing for a job with a heavy teaching load (4/4) and some research expectation for tenure (typically a publication or two and regular conference presentations). How do you translate your area of specialization to undergrads? How can you get undergrads involved in your research - making your research an opportunity for teaching? How does what you do as a scholar differ from what you do in the classroom and why? How does your scholarly work influence your approach to texts in the classroom?

What I and my colleagues want to see is someone who is passionate about bringing their area of specialization to students who are not necessarily the best prepared or the smartest but who really do want to learn. It's not about publishing or perishing so much as it's about being an active scholar who can then use that to engage students and to show them how to become scholars themselves.

I don't think that's necessarily a negative, or that schools like mine are trying to have it all in a negative way. I think this approach at my own undergrad institution probably accounts for the fact that I went on to grad school. No, the research that happens at this kind of school will most probably never have the kind of impact that research at top research universities has. And no, the teaching that happens isn't the same kind of teaching that one gets at a community college, where teaching has traditionally been the only focus. But I think the mix at mid-tier 4-years is just different - not necessarily or always a bad thing - for faculty or, more importantly, for students.
Oh, I should say, a publication or two plus conferences in the humanities. Those wacky folks in other fields where co-authorship happens have different requirements altogether :)
What Dr. Crazy says is also true for most SLACs these days, but especially all that are nationally ranked: giving a GOOD and specific answer to how your research and teaching intersect is crucial.
About your "reservations about hiring me" question... I was asked that once at a dinner with the candidate, another (junior faculty) committee member, and a senior faculty colleague who was friends with the candidate. The two of us on the committee froze, because we didn't want to risk upsetting the senior colleague. No way the candidate could have known, but the situation was a nightmare politically. The senior colleague basically gave a pablum answer, and we nodded, agreeably. I actually did have a comment, but just could not have offered it if I had wanted. So, another mark against such frankness...
I'll--third?--that the "do you have any reservations" question is as likely to backfire as not. Committee processes are supposed to be confidential, so they probably can't share much. Besides, at that point they haven't had a chance to talk about your interview, so any reservations are going to be on an individual level. Finally, even if you do get a straight answer, chances are good that it's not going to be something you can make better in the closing minutes of an interview: if they say you don't have enough teaching experience, or your teaching demo sucked, or they think the students will think you're dull, almost anything you could say to the contrary would sound like an excuse. I wouldn't encourage the question, myself.
At the interview for the job I just got (mid-tier U), 2 faculty took me to dinner the first night and swore up and down that I could ask them anything, anything at all, and it would be ok: they were senior faculty, not on the committee, etc. They really wanted my most negative question but I didn't have any prepared, since I was trying to be on my best behavior! I managed to come up with, "So, what's the *worst* thing about working here?" and they said, that's it? That's the worst question you have? Then they answered it and their answers were very consistent with what other faculty told me throughout the visit. I also asked them, since the ad specified they were hiring in X or Y, which one did they really truly want or were they being honest in wanting either one. Those were the "worst" questions I was willing to come out with during an interview. It worked out!
If you honestly believe that a given job is beneath you, don't apply for it.

Let me expand this for everybody applying for any job. Don't apply for any job you don't want to take! It will save everybody a lot of time and effort!
I would also add that an R1 is not necessarily "all about research." Yes, that may be all that gets discussed at the lunch/dinner table, or when walking from building to building, but do not take that as a sign that you can skip prep for any sample teaching you're asked to do. Sure, a great researcher will usually do fine at an R1 even if they are a terrible teacher--but as a fresh job candidate, you do not have the bona fides yet to assume that kind of (imho) wildly irresponsible attitude. The committee members will talk to the students you try to teach (indeed, some of the committee members may be students), and they will listen to what the students say. Even at an R1, for an entry or even Associate position, you have to please both your potential colleagues and your potential students. Only the truly Big Names will be hired without regard to their classroom performance. I have seen more than one potential hire shot down here by poor student response, and the ones who squeaked through (and then got intensive mentoring on teaching methods) were not the first choice.
I'm with Dr. Crazy - I work at one of those regional universities where both good teaching and decent research count. We don't expect a book (in fact, most of the books written here get written later in one's career), but we do expect at least three articles, and regular conference presentations, precisely because we want our students to be getting relatively fresh material from professors who retain interest in their subject areas. And I very much agree with shortwoman - I have seen too many candidates arrive for on-campus visits who are clearly not interested in leaving the east coast to move to a place with tumbleweed. And I wish they would stop handing us various lines about really liking the west ... In fact, I wish there were a wiki site for those who hire, not just for those on the market - oh, the stories I could tell ...
Just one comment, on "the waiter test:" about seven years ago, I got a very nice post-doc somewhere in the great state of Texas. Later, one of the junior (newly tenured) members of that committee told me that what had sealed my candidacy for him was my reaction to finding that a pen I had fetched from my purse had broken and had started to run blue ink all over my hand at lunch. A waiter passed by to collect our plates, and I had wiped pen on a paper napkin, placed it on a plate, took a glass of water from the tray,replaced it with the sorry pen, and told the waiter I was terribly sorry, but could he just dump it when he went to the kitchen. Luckily, the ink on my hand was so wet and so cheap that I was able to wipe it off with another wet napkin and to go on explaining my qualifications. He said when I didn't even get flustered, he knew I'd be fine !

As for geography, that is a good point made by anonymous, but I think an open mind cuts both ways: don't assume anything about places in the US you no nothing about: don't fall prey to stereotypes, don't listen to your adviser or other colleagues. I really loved some places people said would not be for me. As for those who think the candidate doesn't really want to leave, e.g. the east coast, give said candidate a break, or at least a tour. I've seen people really make a home for themselves after the initial culture shock wears off. My two cents...
Ugh. That would be "that you know nothing about. Yep.
This is a great post. I almost wish you hadn't mentioned the "waiter" test. The last thing I want is to interview a 'kiss up-kick down' candidate who now has the heads up.
About Shortwoman's comment: yes, but only if you're absolutely sure. It can be really hard to know whether you want a job until after you're well into the interview process -- sometimes even until after you've had an offer. The campus visit might surprise you; once you see the school and meet the people, you might start to envision yourself there in a way that you couldn't from looking at a website.

So my advice to job seekers is to keep an open mind. If you don't meet the qualifications for the position, don't apply. If you do, and would consider an offer seriously even if you aren't excited about the location, go ahead. It's up to the school to recruit the best faculty it can, so give your prospective department chair a chance to convince you that you could thrive there.

The advice about having good questions to ask is key.
The comment about a sample teaching presentation at an R1 blew my mind. That is unheard of in physics, where the only presentation is a research seminar or departmental colloquium, and only some grad students will be there to provide their perspective if asked.

But that just goes to show that there will be differences across campus as well as across types of institutions. The boundary is probably drawn where a minimum amount of annual externally funded research money is a requirement for tenure in addition to the usual publication record with international impact.

What Dr. Crazy describes for her institution appears typical of what my friends had to do at similar 4-yr or MS institutions. Lead authorship is less important, but active involvement in research (especially by undergrads) is essential.
CCPhysicist's point about differences across campus is well taken: disciplines that have research faculty are quite different in regard to sample teaching from, say, humanities or social science departments that don't have that particular institution.

To summarize: know your market and prepare accordingly.
One resource mentioned in the bleg comments is conspicuous by its absence: the News and Advice Archive at the Chronicle for Higher Education.

I strongly recommend reading everything ever written by "The Two-Year Track" and many of the columns by "Ms. Mentor" if you are looking for a CC job, and others offer insight into the seldom-discussed mid-tier universities that came up in this discussion.
Just commenting from outside the academy - I really don't get this statement from shortwoman: "Let me expand this for everybody applying for any job. Don't apply for any job you don't want to take! It will save everybody a lot of time and effort!"

It is not the job of the applicant to protect the use of resources for the search. I realize academic searches are pretty intensive, but part of being grown up about HR is to recognize that part of the process is that some people won't accept positions... mostly responsibly.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?