Monday, December 22, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: What Makes a Good Job Talk?

A new correspondent writes:

 
I wonder if you’d consider posting a query to your readers about job talk expectations at their institutions, and whether those expectations are communicated to candidates ahead of time.  My institution just finished a round of hiring, and about the only thing we all could agree on was that the job talks were uniformly terrible.  Of course, we give little or no guidance to the candidates, primarily because we’d never agree among ourselves what an ideal job talk would look like.  I assume expectations for job talks will vary widely among institutions and disciplines, but my guess is that there probably is at least some commonality.



What I like about this question is the admission that committees often don't know, or can't agree on, what they want. That's why it's hard to answer questions like “what are they really looking for?” More often than not, they don't know either.

I suspect that this is also one of the reasons that criteria are rarely communicated to applicants in advance. If you don't know what you want, you probably won't ask for it.

I'll offer a few criteria that seem to be pretty reliable for cc-level jobs, and ask my wise and worldly readers to add what they've seen at their institutions. I'll stipulate up front that what might work for a research university might not work for a community college, and vice versa.

The first and most obvious is attitude. I understand that a cc may not be what you had in mind when you went to grad school. I also don't care. We take our work seriously, and we want colleagues who take it seriously, too. Our students deserve no less. I've seen candidates who did everything short of holding their noses during interviews; every single one of them was immediately DOA. If you believe that a cc is somehow beneath you, don't apply.

The second, related to the first, is curiosity. This may seem counterintuitive, but the candidates who talked less about themselves and more about the college generally did quite well. If you're just giving Prepared Talk #14, you'll be less impressive than if you're actually engaging the group, and engaging is a two-way process.

Obviously, that involves doing some homework prior to the talk. What's the teaching load, both in terms of credits/courses/hours/preps, and in terms of level? I once heard a math candidate generously offer that she was willing to go as 'low' in the curriculum as Calc I once in a while, in a spirit of shared sacrifice. Most of the job involves teaching either remedial or college algebra. She didn't get the offer.
The same can apply to the English applicant who only wants to teach literature, as opposed to composition, or nearly anybody who refuses to teach gen eds. In the cc universe, those courses are most of what we do; if you aren't excited to do them, you probably shouldn't work here.

In my world, too much dissertation talk is a clue that you really have something else in mind. Talk about teaching is much better received, particularly if it references both the scholarship of teaching and learning and your own actual teaching experience with students similar to ours.

Individual campuses have their own quirks, of course, as do individual departments. These really have nothing to do with the candidates, but they come into play anyway. Annoyingly, the departments often don't know that their quirks are quirks; they think they're normal. It's your fault for not knowing that there was a blowup several years ago over afternoon classes and now no full-timers ever teach after 1 pm, or that standardized outcomes assessment tools are of the devil, or that the unnamed college down the street is the source of all evil. My guess is that the extraordinarily low turnover of full-time faculty, relative to almost any other industry, explains the weird provincialism that can take hold in departments that haven't hired in a while. When nobody in the group has seen anything in the last thirty years to compare their place to, some very weird ideas can go unchallenged for a remarkably long time.

There's also the usual standard advice about being clear, dressing professionally, staying upbeat, and never, ever, under any circumstances, bashing a former employer. (My rule of thumb for clothes, and it works regardless of gender: at an interview, don't wear anything for the first time. If something squeaks, or pinches, or shines too much, you'll be off your game. Break it in, first.) If your primary aftertaste is 'bitter,' we don't want you.

And finally, if you don't get the offer, know that it probably had nothing to do with anything you did or didn't do. In this market – even more so since this year's free-fall started – the balance of power is so thoroughly in the employer's favor that heaven only knows who you'll be up against, and what will finally tip the balance. When it gets down to the final two or three, there's an inescapable element of randomness that creeps in – candidate A withdraws at the last possible moment for spousal reasons, or candidate A gets a better offer and candidate B has spousal issues, or the department falls in love with candidate A just before the funding for the position is sucked into the black hole. Don't internalize the bad news. Rejection is part of the process, and generally out of your control. Take the high road, do what you can, and try not to let it mess with your mental health. Taking it too personally can lead to the aforementioned bitter aftertaste.

Wise and worldly readers – what would you add/amend/refute/suggest?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Comments:
In my experience there is no "job talk" at the CC level. When I was interviewing I had to teach one full class period on a (standard) topic of the committee's choice or I had to talk about how I would teach a hypothetical class, again on a standard topic of the committee's choice.

When I have been on hiring committees at the CC level, we allowed 15-20 minutes for a teaching demonstration and then we had about 30 minutes for random questions from the committee. There wasn't much to prepare beyond the teaching demo and doing your homework on the institution.

When I was a grad student at a R1 institution we did a lot of hiring. All of the job talks were basically well structured 50 minute colloquia. They were very similar to the outside speakers who we paid to come to campus. There we expected people to focus on what they had done, beyond just the master's and dissertation if possible, and where they expected to go at our institution. The majority were actually quite good. I should add that this was in the social sciences and the job talk was meant to be very theory and data driven, which would not be the case in all fields.
 
At my CC it was a 10 minute teaching demo.

One important question to ask is how long you'll have and make sure you are able to finish in that time.

Also, when doing a teaching demo -- talk WITH the committee, not AT them.

Also, DD is right -- if you think taking the CC job will be somehow beneath you -- but, you'll condescend to help us out by teaching some mid-level courses for us -- foget applying. Also, remember that you'll have NO seniority -- so, at least for the first few schedule rotations (i.e. the first few years) you may be teaching some pretty undesireable classes --yea, you with the swanky Ph.D.... get used to it.
 
Hey, DD and the other relevant fac here: how long do cc interviews last?

My interview experience is mostly with comprehensives and research institutes, and I also sit in on interviews at my institution (a research center with a collegiate affiliation). At both, the pattern seems to be a 3-day interview, including a full 50-minute lecture, tours of potential lab space, and extensive sit-downs with potential colleagues, administrators, student groups, etc.

The job talk in this context is supposed to be research-focused, although you also want to engage the students. Questions about teaching seem to be confined to meetings with the faculty. However, it sounds like cc job talks are a very different beast. So, is there such a thing as the unitary theory of job talks?
 
With the exception of the relative focus on teaching, ALL of the advice is appropriate for any level: know the institution, know the program, ask good questions and listen, and know how to describe your current and former experiences positively.

(The last deserves a post in itself: in how many ways can you be positive about a job that absolutely wasn't. But that's a different kettle of fish.)

At R1 institutions, you need to be able to talk about your research, but unless it's a research-only position, you also need to be ready to discuss teaching.

And something you didn't recommend: a mock interview. If your mentor is in the area, or you have friends in academe (ESPECIALLY if they've sat on search committees for a parallel university), make sure they put you through the wringer. Make sure they ask some of the "oh gosh I can't believe my colleague asked the Unaskable" illegal questions, as well as the straightforward ones.
 
Be sure to address with directly or indirectly how what you do fits in with the personality of the institution - how do you fit there, in other words. This sets you apart form the primarily 'I' crowd that doesn't realize it's there job to fit.

Of course, this is separate from a presentation to a an undergraduate or undergraduate class.

And I certainly agree with Dean Dad, don't apply to any place (even a regional state university with a graduate program) that you see as being beneath you - it's almost always obvious. And, unless you are interviewing at a Research I, we really tire of your only talking about your dissertation. We all wrote one.
 
Does anyone at this point actually think a job, any job, is beneath them? I would leap at the chance at a cc job -- and pinch myself, and thank the Gods and lucky stars for the gig. Alas ...
 
All of the above is excellent advice. I will say that at my CC, interviews are quite (and in my opinion too) highly structured. Committees write detailed job descriptions that entail specific expectations. Committees also discuss in depth exactly what/who they are looking for before they look at a single applicant. Lastly, the interview questions (including the teaching sample) are developed as well before viewing the applications. Much of this is positive, but it sometimes make the interview itself somewhat stilted - we take turns going around the room reading the questions.

In terms of additional advice, I would remind interviewers that committees use the teaching sample to see how well you can teach, and not necessarily how much you know about a particular subject or how well you can use high-tech 'bells and whistles'. The teaching needs to be engaging and interactive with the interviewers. Make it clear that you are treating them as students - ask them questions, get responses.
 
I think that the quality of your candidates' talks will be directly proportional to the clarity and depth of your job announcement and communication via the interview offer.

A candidate willing to slum it to teach Calc 1 probably wouldn't have even applied if the job announcement clearly stated "remedial" and "algebra". Of course, she also should have checked the course schedule before she showed up.

A committee should be able to decide, then write, that they are seeking a painter who focuses on traditional modes of representation, for example, rather than a painter who applies the discourse to new media. You know as well as I do that avoiding the argument over what a department needs is only postponing it until after the interview rounds. The fight will still happen.

Also, believe it or not, what I've seen watching candidates' lectures, etc. precisely mirrors what I've seen interviewing hundreds of teenagers for selective arts programs. - That is that beyond the requisite qualifications, that success is all about people skills. The kids that can reflect somewhat clearly on themselves then give their best effort to find where the interviewer's mind is at and bring who they are to that place, do well.

So, committees are far more likely to get good presentations, answers, etc. from candidates when the committee can craft an interview process that allows real, human interaction even within the fair hiring guidelines. After all, teachers teach people, and they're likely to be at their best when there is an opportunity to connect with their audience. CCs are notoriously bad at that, with their often short, rigidly scripted interviews.
 
The "short, rigidly scripted interviews" meteechart mentions are, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception at CA CC's where the interview process has been co-opted by HR. At my CC, a Hiring Compliance Officer sits on every hiring committee to make sure every candidate is asked exactly the same questions in the same order. Committee members are told that they must ignore everything, good or bad, that they know about candidates. Decisions are based only on what happens during a 45-minute interview.

Our union contract also gives our adjunct faculty members with three or more semesters of service and satisfactory evaluations an automatic interview. Of course, it's hard to argue against interviewing someone who's been hired semester after semester after semester, but this also means that in big departments with lots of adjuncts, hiring committees will interview 30 or 40 candidates. As you can imagine, the differences among candidates get pretty blurry after two or three weeks of afternoon-long interviewing.
 
This is *not* based on community college experience, but here are five points that I suspect apply here as well. 1) You need to think of your audience from the start of preparing the talk; they are likely to be smart and interested (they came, didn't they?) but not knowledgeable about what you're spending your time thinking about. 2) It's a really, really good idea to ask about local expectations for the talk; it's even better to ask a couple of different people. 3) I've found that finishing grad students almost always underprepare for their job talks. 4) Even students who are experienced and skillful at both teaching and giving talks have a very hard time preparing a job talk. My rule of thumb is that it takes at least 3 full-blown practice talks before it's close to being acceptable, and the first one is almost always disastrous (with the speaker not finishing, bursting into tears, etc.). 5) Anyone who is preparing to give a job talk should watch the Jerry Seinfeld DVD "Comedian" to get a sense of how a pro prepares a talk.
 
Yes, Dictyranger, the two kinds of job talks could not be more different, and most grad students have only seen the R1 version (since the majority earn their PhD at a major research university).

Having observed and participated in the process at both types of institutions, I would characterize a university job talk as an attempt to prove that you have a chance at earning tenure at that institution - which can be a non-trivial exercise at an R1. Having many ideas for future projects is as important as a coherent, understandable seminar that shows you might be a decent teacher.

At a CC, it is all about teaching, with completely different objectives that must be satisfied. And, yes, it is definitely the case that we get applicants who have not read and understood the job ad.

Our interview process covers the batter part of a day, depending a bit on committee logistics and the visitor's schedule. For some parts (the interview with the committee and with the Dean), Sherman's advice is right on the mark.

We generally specify the topic for the sample class, which we set at about 20ish minutes - that is, one part of a lesson plan that would normally fit in with two other topics in a regular class session. The topic is chosen to reflect one of the more challenging items in the syllabus for a course that makes up the meat of that person's future teaching duties. We expect you to TEACH that class, with us as the bored (sometimes disengaged) students.

Others might have different expectations, so be sure to ask what your hosts want. We want to see how you engage us, without some fancy dog-and-pony Powerpoint that you spent a week developing.
 
If anyone is interested in what it takes to deliver a good job talk in the sciences at a research university, check it this post I wrote at Drugmonkey just over a year:

http://drugmonkey.wordpress.com/2007/11/04/job-talk-juju/

Here's an excerpt:

It is your job talk. There is one overriding psychological principle that informs everything about its design and delivery. People like to feel smart. Everything about your job talk must support the goal of making your audience feel smart. What the heck is PhysioProf talking about?

It is natural for the applicant to want to include as much experimental data as possible into the job talk. First, she has spent countless hours collecting and analyzing her data; she truly loves her data. Second, she wants to impress her audience with her extraordinary productivity.

Don’t do this! Just because you yourself can understand and speak intelligently about four years worth of experiments in about one hour, does not mean that your audience will be able to comprehend all that information. Except for people working in very closely related subfields, it is certain that they cannot. Audience members who do not understand what you are talking about do not feel smart. Guess who gets blamed for that?

 
Two suggestions: (#1, reinforcing comments above) Keep the position description in mind. If you are responding to an ad for a specialized position, focus your teaching demonstration (if you are given a choice) and research presentation on topics in that general field. Your aim should be to show your breadth of expertise within the advertised specialty, not to prove that you are a polymath. If the position is a generalist one, adjust accordingly. (#2) Present polished work. This is not the time to experiment with teaching in a new corner of your field or to give a talk on an idea that you have just begun working with.
 
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From someone outside of the professoriate, I was boggled at the length of interviews when I was in the running for a (staff) job at a SLAC. (Oddly enough, my alma mater. I had a strange conversation with one of my interviewers about what I learned from protesting outside of his office 10 years earlier.) IIRC it was 4+ hours with the potential supervisor, then the rest of the team, then the boss' boss, and I think one other person. Plus I ran into my old advisor, which was just weird.

And my interview at my CC job involved showing some actual design mockups, which generally in my field is looked at somewhat askance. ("Work on spec" is often anathema in the graphic arts.) That was the application process that took so long, I'd almost forgotten that I'd applied by the time I got the call for the interview.

I'm imagining this to be a holdover from faculty interviewing or something. My current job, outside academia, was one interview with my boss & one other person, very structured questions, but short & straightforward.
 
Would it help get a person interviewed if that person focused a lot on the college in their cover letter? I'm wondering if the reason some of us "Veterans" don't get interviewed are sabotaging ourselves at the application level by focusing on our own accomplishments instead of on the college.
 
What advise would you give someone with a PhD in higher education administration and 10 years of community college experience who is unemployed and looking for work?
 
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