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.