Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Self-Paid Interview Travel?

A new correspondent writes:

I've found myself in a little conundrum lately. I was contacted last week that I got an interview for a community college job I applied to in the Spring. I'm assuming this job starts in September, since that's when their school year starts. Today, I got an email with interview times, which were all next week... My problem is that this interview is across the country, and flights at this time are $500. I assume I'll be paying that since there was no mention of reimbursement. That's quite an investment for a 1-hour interview! I'm very nervous about this, since the only possibilities are that this would be the first in a string of interviews (so more $500 flights) or they're basing their whole decision on just 1 hour! This is a full time tenure track position, so that seems unlikely. I very interested in this job, since it would involve some awesome teaching possibilities. But I'm not quite sure how to proceed and be professional about this. I'm willing to pay for travel, but only if I stand a chance.

Ugh. I know budgets are tight – believe me, I live it every single day – but paying reasonable airfare (by which I mean 'coach') for tenure-track candidates just strikes me as a basic, minimal professional courtesy. Hiring (potentially) permanent employees is a high-risk proposition, since a good hire pays you back for a long time and a lousy hire can be an organizational migraine. Laying out a couple thousand upfront in travel reimbursements – and thereby vastly broadening your applicant pool – is money very well spent, if you have any ability at all as a talent scout. You'll get it back, and so much more, in a stronger faculty, over time.

My first thought is that just because they didn't mention reimbursement doesn't mean they won't do it. Call the HR department there and ask specifically about it. Sometimes they'll reimburse up to a certain amount, sometimes they'll reimburse entire costs, and sometimes they won't pay you anything but they might arrange for someone to pick you up at the airport (if that needs to be done). I've heard of colleges (cough) that won't volunteer the fact that they reimburse, but that will reimburse if asked directly. It strikes me as weaselly, but there it is.

It's not unheard of for colleges to conduct 'airport interviews' for the first round. Typically, they'll get some space either in or very close to an airport, and interview 6-8 candidates for maybe an hour each, intending to call back two or three for full-day, on-campus interview gauntlets. It's a relatively time-efficient way to do a first in-person screen, even if there's something vaguely surreal about it. (Full disclosure: back when I was trying to escape Proprietary U, I had an airport interview for a gig at a quirky college in a quirky and distant place. Flying out and back on the same day is a weird experience. As it happened, I made it to the next round but didn't get the job.) As technologies like Skype become more refined and more common, and airfare more expensive, I wouldn't be surprised to see airport interviews give way to video interviews, although I don't think we're there yet.

If the HR department responds that yes, they'll pay you back, then congratulations. If they decline, then you have a decision to make. It's typically not the case that a college will pay for some applicants and not others; usually, they either pay or they don't. So don't take it as a personal affront. But five hundred bucks is five hundred bucks, especially if you're living on grad student money.

At Proprietary U, I saw a candidate hired who had to pay his own airfare for the interview. So it has happened, though it was certainly a gamble on his part.

I suspect emotions run high on this one, so I'll throw it open to my wise and worldly readers. Voices of the blogosphere, what do you think?

Good luck!

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