Friday, February 26, 2010

Job Search Saga: A Phone Interview

My first phone interview did nothing to lessen the pressure of having to decide whether to accept another college's job offer. The interview was with one of the existing faculty in the department (the second would be with someone from a completely unrelated department), and her enthusiasm for all things related to her college was contagious. Her colleagues, her students, the description of how all senior thesis students were taken to a conference to present their work every year...It's impassible to get a real sense of a college from one person's verbal description, but by the time we hung up I found my decision even harder to make, because it seemed like this would be such a cool place to teach.

I also had no sense of whether I had "passed" my phone interview. As with my in-person interview - less than a week before! - I had been told a lot about the position and the college, and asked my own questions, but could remember only a handful of questions that might be used to separate me from the rest of the pack, the half-dozen other people who had been asked to do phone interviews. Most of the questions felt like they were just double-checking my interest before paying for my plane ticket. Why do you want to teach at a liberal arts colleges? What do you think about living in a small town? I found myself repeating a number of things that were in my application packet, although I repeated them with enthusiasm and flair. I suppose it helps colleges save money, but I constantly felt like I must be expected to have more to say than I had said before, and I didn't - I had worked on my application packet that thoroughly.

The only question that seemed like it might actually be evaluating my credentials was the fun one: If you could teach anything, any class, any topic, what would it be? I have two or three classes I dream of putting together, someday in the future when I have tenure and time, so I shared one of those. At least here I had a sense of how I did; "wow, that's interesting" (said with the appropriate tone of voice) is a very encouraging response.

So I left my office after the interview feeling both more conflicted - how am I supposed to decide my own future? - and, after a little thought, more relaxed - there are so many places I could love working and be successful, it'll all turn right in the end. And I convinced myself that there was nothing more I could decide until my next phone interview, so there was no point stressing myself out over the weekend.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Job Search Saga: An Offer And An(other) Interview

I had been told not to be surprised if I received a job offer within a few days, but I couldn't help but take that advice with a cautionary grain of salt. So I was somewhat surprised, and very elated, to arrive at work, my first day back after the interview, and discover an email with the job offer in my inbox. It had been sent barely 24 hours after my first interview began, had landed in my inbox while I was still on a plane flying home from the interview. I wanted to leap from my chair, to shout the news to all the graduate students in nearby offices. But I continued to sort through the emails received during a full day of travel, while I tried to decide how I would tell my advisor.

What I had not expected, and was both very surprised and somewhat panicked to see, was an email from another college expressing interest in my application and inviting me to do two phone interviews in the coming weeks. Given the current financial environment, all my planning had been focused on getting a single job; I hadn't spared the slightest thought on actually having to make decisions about accepting interviews or accepting offers. It never rains but it pours, and there I was caught outside without an umbrella.

My email to my advisor thus became a slightly panicked request for a meeting, the first time I have ever marked any communication "urgent". I had a job offer I was supposed to decide about within the week, an request to do phone interviews the next week, and no idea how to begin to respond to either. I needed someone to stem the tide of rising stress by first, rekindling the thrill of having been given an offer and another interview request and being wanted, and second, giving me some idea of what to do next.

My advisor demonstrated just how supportive she could be by coming through for me, offering to be on Skype for a conference (from her sabbatical location) within half an hour. In this meeting I heard her vicarious thrill at my achievements, and got very soothing guidance about what I could do next. It would be reasonable to ask for an extension on the job offer deadline, up to a week. I could mention the interview when making the request if I thought it would improve my chances of negotiating the offer. It would be reasonable to agree to tell the second college that I had an offer deadline, and ask to do the phone interviews early, to find more about that college as I decided. Meanwhile, I should put together a rough budget of my start-up needs, to determine how much I could do with the package I had been offered, considering a list of the hidden expenses my advisor provided.

I still left that meeting with a hearty dose of excitement, mingled with a dash of panic, but I'm not sure I would be human if I could have been calmed so easily. Whatever decision I was going to make, I had proof now that I was qualified for my chosen career, that I had chosen wisely in choosing that career, that I could fit in as a faculty member on a liberal arts college - and that more than one college thought so. The trick was going to be holding on to that excitement while navigating the stress of simultaneous interviews and decisions.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Job Search Saga: Final Note On Interview Day

What I left out of the description of my whirlwind interview day was the slightly unreal feeling the persisted over the day, as here and there language cropped in that was more in line with "if you accept the job" as opposed to "if we offer you the job". The faculty interviews were all so laid-back, more conversations than interrogations, that I couldn't quite get a handle on what was going on. There were no mentions of other people interviewing, the difficulty of the decision the department was going to make, or even any real questions that made me wonder if they would hire me. I wasn't sure what to expect at an interview, but it certainly wasn't information phrased as "You would be responsible for teaching...", or "Most likely you would be in that office...". It was incredibly unnerving.

This came to a head when the senior faculty member gave me a tour around town before dropping me off at my hotel. His comments were peppered with suggestions about local agencies he could connect me with for research, the best places to live, and included the offer to give me the name of a good real estate agent. Perhaps the jet lag and the long day contributed, but I was feeling quite disoriented by the time we turned to my hotel. I hadn't found a way to ask the chair, or anyone else, when they thought they would make a decision, and I was starting to seriously regret not trying harder to broach the subject. I was trying to get my tired brain to come up with a brilliant way to ask, when matters were taken care of for me.

Here's the deal, he said as we neared my hotel. I've talked with everyone in the department, and they all liked you. Your job talk was great, we can tell you're a wonderful teacher. We have interviewed some other people, and we think you'll fit in fine. Don't be surprised if you get an email in the next few days offering you the job. We're eager to have someone hired, so we'll probably ask for your decision in a week or so. I'm letting you know this now so you have a little time to think about it.

This was too much for my tired, jet-lagged brain. It would be inappropriate to thrill with excitement, it would be inappropriate to give much of a hint about how enthusiastic I would be before seeing the financial terms of the offer...but what would be inappropriate? I'm not sure I contributed much beyond "Ok", some random assurance that I don't linger over my decisions, and a generic nice-to-have-met-you as I exited the car.

I also had no idea what I was supposed to tell people about how my interview went. I'm too paranoid and too cautious to make much of a possibility. I'm too much of a scientist desiring facts and definite data to rely on hearsay. After all, they couldn't have gotten the Provost's opinion, and I had no idea what he thought of me or how much his opinion would weigh, or someone could change their mind or raise doubts at the next department meeting. I was ecstatic, but reserved about sharing it.

On the phone with my father, telling him how my interview went, I kept that final parting statement to myself until he explicitly asked when I was supposed to hear their decision. Stretched out on my huge hotel bed, trying to figure out how I could be so exhausted and so unable to sleep, I decided to keep that potential decision a secret from everyone else, even my advisor; I would simply say that the interview went incredibly well, that I liked the college, that I thought I would hear back soon. It was all very true, and the suggestion of an offer was just too much, too soon, for me to deal with my own reaction, let alone anyone else's.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Job Search Saga: Interview Day

Although my interview schedule easily contained a full day's worth of meetings, that day didn't start until noon. Either the department chair was thoughtful enough to consider that the two-hour time change was not in my favor, or I lucked out on their idea of convenient interview times. I didn't sleep in, but I did make a final walk-through of my presentation and immerse myself one last time on the school website.

Promptly at 11:58, I left my hotel room and headed for the lobby. I had absolutely no idea how the chair and I were supposed to recognize each other, as the college website was surprisingly devoid of any faculty images. Fortunately, I didn't have to dwell on this, as the one person waiting in the lobby took the initiative and introduced herself. I wasn't sure what the protocol was for starting an interview in the lobby, so I focused on small talk during the drive to the college, mostly about the weather. The uncertainty persisted over lunch; it just doesn't feel like an interview when you're eating typical college cafe fare with students chatting on either side. She told me in more detail about what they were looking for (a replacement for a retiring faculty member, but opening up a new line of courses and research that students had requested), and flipped through my application packet looking for any final questions she had. I think our entire meeting covered more information about what they were looking for, with me working a few of my qualifications into the conversation where I could, than any interrogative interview.

Which made it all the more jarring to be switch from this laid-back conversation to my interview with the Provost. The department chair apologized when she picked me up, because she forgot to warn me that the man had no discernible sense of humor. Here I felt like I was being interrogated. There was the time he read a particular sentence from the job listing, twice, and then asked me how I would meet those requirements. (For the record, not a single person in the department asked me about those particular qualifications). Then there was the time that he left the room to fetch a posterboard copy of the college's new mission statement, propped it up on his desk, lectured me about the design, and then asked me how I would fit in with the college's central mission. The man never smiled, not once in forty-five minutes. I left the interview seriously wondering if he would veto any decision to hire me, even though I thought I handled all of the questions well, even the one that caught me completely off-guard, "What do you think are the biggest challenges facing higher education?".

On the bright side, I did have time to ask my own questions; I learned that the Provost could name every member of the department interviewing me, and had some idea of their reputation as teachers; I also learned that faculty had a lot of freedom in setting policies and designing new courses, and that I wouldn't be expected to do much service as a "visiting" professor. Still, I had never thought I would feel so intimidated on an interview.

So it was with great trepidation that I went on to my meeting with the faculty interview committee. To my immense relief, this committee consisted of three faculty members, as laid-back as anyone might expect at the college. They asked mainly standard, expected questions, they laughed readily at jokes and entertaining descriptions of research or teaching mishaps, and generally seemed happy to chat with me for the allotted time. The most interesting question I was asked was really more of a challenge: Explain why a student who would not major in your discipline should take an intro course in it. I think that question is much like the unexpected question from the Provost; you might not have explicitly prepared for it, but if you're right for a job at a liberal arts college you'll have thought about it enough in the past to be able to answer promptly. I even knew exactly what story to tell to back up the usefulness of something that would be learned in such an intro course.

Next came individual interviews with three of the faculty in the department. Two questions were fairly standard: If you could teach any class in our discipline, what would it be?, and How are you going to arrange your research given the limited resources of a liberal arts college in a small town? I'm not sure that any other questions were even asked. I did get to learn some of what pulled my application toward the top of the pile. The newest faculty member, who started just this year, was interested in a non-academic article I had written for a professional organization's magazine. Another was thrilled that our areas of research had some overlap, more than he had with the existing faculty, which would give him someone to discuss his research with in more depth. The third was the most brusque of the bunch - not unfriendly, but definitely businesslike; I rather got the impression that she thought I would do and was otherwise busy with preparing for other classwork.

My job talk went off without a hitch. I hadn't memorized every word, but I hit every point I need to make, the demonstrations worked perfectly with enthusiastic audience response (perhaps not from the students, who had assumed their standard "I'm being lecture at" faces, not unlike the slack-jawed stare of those watching TV, but I didn't let that deter me). I ended on time, answered a few questions that were perfectly relevant and not from left field, and could only hope that I had simultaneously conveyed my research abilities and teaching skills.

My final interview was really dinner, with the chair and the senior faculty member. The senior faculty member was incredibly nice as we prepared to leave for dinner; we were a few minutes ahead of schedule, and he arranged to vanish while I took a few minutes to myself. I walked up and down the silent hallway, breathing deeply, convincing myself that the worst was over; all I had to do was avoid any major social transgressions over dinner and I would be fine. Dinner was indeed an incredibly relaxed affair, at a surprisingly fancy restaurant. I shared the story of the Provost fetching the posterboard of the mission statement, to amusement all around, but otherwise the topics stayed enough away from teaching and research that I didn't feel under the microscope. After dinner, the senior faculty member gave me a driving tour of the town, including the main downtown area and the places near the college that faculty typically lived.

I returned to my hotel room both exhilarated and exhausted. I had survived my first interview, my impressions of the liberal arts college were everything I had hoped for and enough to convince me that I had chosen the correct career path. And all I had to do now was wait.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Job Search Saga: Feeling Important in a "Budget Traveler" Hotel

I hadn't expected it, but being invited to an interview provided an amazing boost o my ego. It didn't really hit me until I arrived at my hotel, sleep deprived and jet lagged and frustrated after a long day of travel and an hour-long drive through the dark in an unfamiliar rental car to an unfamiliar town. The realization began when I checked in, and had to do no more than sign a piece of paper, because the College had made the arrangements. It hit full force when I stepped into my hotel room, and stared around like I'd checked into the Ritz. The hotel chain was described as being for "budget travelers", but for a graduate student it was opulent used to living off a small stipend it was downright opulent.

The ego-boosting revelation was simple: They were paying to meet me. They hadn't asked for a preliminary phone interview, they just jumped straight into spending a considerable sum, over half my monthly income, on my plane tickets, rental car, hotel stay, and meals. Based on nothing more than my cover letter, teaching statement, and supporting materials, they thought that I was worth that expense. Given the economic pressures that had resulted in so many colleges canceling their searches, that seems like a big deal.

So I luxuriated in my surroundings, the incredibly comfortable bed and the cable TV and the buffet breakfast that remarkably included hot options, and not just a waffle maker. It was the perfect start to the interview, because it's incredibly easy to project confidence in your ability as a future professor when they have made you so confident already.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Job Search Saga: Surprisingly Unstressed

As I prepared myself for my interview, I found myself surprisingly relaxed. I was a little unsure about what to expect, of course, and trawling the Internet to get some idea of what a provost or faculty interview committee might want to know, but I was not on edge the way I was before graduate school interviews, or before conference presentations.

The main reason for this unexpected lack of stress was a simple statement by a faculty member giving job search advice: Once they've invited you for an interview, they've acknowledged that you are a qualified teacher; the interview's purpose is only to establish "fit". "Fit", that ephemeral term that tries so hard to be more mature than adolescent angst about "fitting in" but is essentially the same thing, and very important at a small liberal arts colleges. The entire department, all five of them, were going to meet with me to decide if they would enjoy working with me for three years, or if there was some dramatic character conflict, or just in general if I sounded great on paper but was a horror in person. If I were a few years younger, this might have been more stressful than being evaluated on my qualifications, but I was also looking for a great place to work for three years, which made it a question of mutual fit. I was just as concerned with whether I would like working with them as they were concerned with whether they would like working with me, and if someone took an irrational dislike to me then I wouldn't want the job anyway.

With this fact firmly in mind, the interview became fun. It was a free trip to somewhere I'd never been, including meals for three days (the interview and both travel days), at least one of which was guaranteed to be of excellent quality (the dinner with faculty members after the interview). It was a chance to share my research with a group of qualified researchers, who might have good questions or comments about things I could do next. And it would be my first visit ever to a liberal arts college, and my chance to find out more about how they really work, their personality, what I could expect from my chosen career.

Don't get me wrong; I did want to be offered the job, and I would be disappointed if I didn't get it. But knowing that I wasn't really being evaluated, and knowing that I would get so much out of this visit even if I didn't get an offer, kept the excitement so high that the stress didn't have a chance to break through.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Job Search Saga: Interview Advice

The world is full of interview advice. Tips for getting or maintaining that job appear regularly on, the career center at my university spams us regularly with advice and prompts, and a quick Google search will return more results than any job applicant could possibly sift through. Unfortunately, most of that advice is designed for the business world, not the academic one. Those tips do not presuppose that the interviewers will have read a 2-page cover letter, full academic vita, and teaching and research statements. It was difficult to imagine any faculty members or even the provost asking me what my greatest accomplishment was, a challenge I had overcome, or any of the other cute questions that are apparently so popular these days.

But the Internet is vast, and as an academic I am well trained in tracking down information. Searching for information on faculty interviews, and liberal arts colleges specifically, I found a wide selection of resources. Some of these seemed rather irrelevant, designed for research universities or for departments too foreign from my own. Others, though, provided excellent leads.

The resource I relied on most heavily was actually a book, and a very old one, called "Good Start: A Guidebook for New Faculty in Liberal Arts Colleges". The edition in my library was published in 1992 - and may be the most recent one - so at times is was somewhat fascinating and highly amusing to read of searching for job announcements before the age of the Internet, and of how it was a seller's market for faculty candidates, and to look at the tables of median starting salaries, which were not all that much better than what I've been making as a grad student. What sold me on the book, though, was the story used to illustrate each part of the application process and early faculty career. Gerald Gibson, the author, adapted his own life story with observations made over the years to create a series of vignettes in the life of a new faculty member that opened each chapter. I didn't read the entire book, but I did read the story, and the chapters on the interview process and the first year as faculty. Seeing a story made me feel like I had some idea what I might experience, and let me generate my own questions instead of blindly following a list.

In addition to that broad picture, and a few discipline-specific suggestions, I found two pieces of advice that would become the focus of my afternoon of interviews:

1. The interviewers are looking for a colleague, albeit a junior one. It seems like it should have been obvious, but after almost five years of graduate school, I was in the habit of thinking of myself as a student. Even when I have presented my research at conferences, or was preparing my faculty application materials, I was thinking of myself as a graduate student. Reading that one simple statement shocked me out of that self-conception and gave me something to focus on projecting during my interviews. I am not a graduate student, I am an assistant professor, and although I will need some help in my first few years, I will be an excellent colleague.

2. Ask everyone who interviews you: What do you like the most, and dislike the most, about teaching at this college. A half-hour with each member of the department is not going to give you a great idea of who they are, or what it would be like to join them, but you can get a close approximation by prompting them to name what they like and dislike. It tells you something about the college, and something about the person. Liking the students and the rest of the department are obvious plusses; like the weather and town may not be the best sign.. Disliking the pay is not to be unexpected; disliking the students or the administration will raise some red flags.

By the time I was ready to fly out for my interview, I had created sheets with the questions I would ask the chair and the provost, and had found at least one specific thing to ask each faculty member, about programs they were involved in, specific projects their students had done, or the research facilities they used. I had anticipated a wide range of potential questions about my research, my ability to mentor undergraduates, and my teaching, and I was sure that if nothing else I wouldn't be left with long awkward silences during my interviews. I'm not sure if anything more constructive could be done to prepare for the first interview.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Job Search Saga: Interview Preparation

The months-long wait was over, and I had finally received an invitation to interview. The interview request itself surpassed my expectations, because it didn't start out slowly with the phone or Skype interview, instead jumping straight to the "we will pay for you to fly out here and visit us" interview. The only catch was that they wanted me out there soon; the invitation arrived on a Friday, with suggested interview dates ranging from the coming Wednesday to the following Tuesday, just a week and a half later. That did not leave much time to prepare.

The first step of preparation was remembering what I had applied for. I deliberately kept myself removed from all my applications, letting myself learn about the colleges in depth for the day or so it took to decide to apply and customize my cover letter, and then forgetting about anything to do with the college so I would not be overly disappointed if I were not selected for a given job. So the name of the college and chair were vaguely familiar, but I did not remember the job description or anything I wrote in my application.

My excitement about the interview increased, impossible as that would seem, when I pulled up the cover letter I had written. I had applied to 18 jobs, and done my best to customize 18 cover letters, but sometimes the position announcement or the school website just doesn't present anything exciting to write about. This college had been one of the exciting ones. Oh, I was probably more enthusiastic about my applications at the time, as it was within the first half-dozen letters I wrote, but the school had contributed as well. I was excited about the January term, a not uncommon feature of liberal arts colleges, the prospect of teaching freshmen seminars, and a few unique features of the college curriculum, and I waxed enthusiastic about them in my letter.

The fun part of my preparation was doing my best to visit every page on the college website, to review all those features that had excited me and to become an expert on the college curriculum and advertising materials. I found myself wishing that I had known about liberal arts colleges, and this one in particular, when I was applying to colleges myself, which has to be a good sign in becoming a professor.

The second step of preparation was creating a job talk. I had known that I was likely to need a job talk, but been too discouraged about my chances of getting an interview to make an effort, especially as I applied to jobs in two sub-fiields, and would likely have had to adapt the talk anyway. I hadn't expected to be given only a week to prepare, and count myself as incredibly lucky that my advisor and lab were incredibly supportive. We called together a special lab meeting just so I could practice my job talk and get their advice.

The most important piece of advice was something I had heard before, but which was useful to hear again: Liberal arts colleges favor teaching, and job talks often do double-duty of showcasing both your research qualifications and your teaching ability. My job talk was all about trying to present my research in a way that would be accessible to undergraduates, and in a way that would be interesting despite being in a formal presentation - which I do my best to avoid during teaching. This included ditching all that statistics, and most of the caveats of what nitpicky questions get raised about my interpretations of my data. It also included making as many connections to other subfields in my area as possible when discussing future directions, to suggest to the faculty present that we could build some nice connections and collaborations as well. It was a tall order to accomplish in just one week.

The third and final step of preparation was general interview preparation. I knew the kinds of questions that might be asked in a regular job interview, but what would be asked of a faculty candidate? I had received the schedule of interviews, which included 45 minutes with the Provost and 30 minutes with the Faculty Interview Committee; what should I ask these administrative people or other faculty members? That topic deserves a post of its own.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Job Search Saga: The First Six Responses

By the middle of January, I had applied to 18 jobs, with "review of application begins" ranging from October 15th to January 15th. I tried to keep a positive outlook, telling myself that fully half of those applications were too early in the review process for me to even guess what I would hear, but the first five responses were far from encouraging.

The first response was neutral, but still discouraging: Search canceled because funding not approved. I didn't really need any reminder that I was on the wrong end of the supply and demand equation, competing with any number of newly minted PhDs for a very limited number of jobs.

Three other responses came in purely negative: Position has been filled. One of these letters declared that over 100 applications had been received, so I knew that my calculations of the odds had been correct, that for any application I submitted I had at best at 5% chance of getting an interview and only a 1% chance of getting the job. Still, I was starting to wonder if there was something wrong with my application, that I would never make it to the top of anyone's list.

The fifth response was incredibly obscure; I couldn't decide how to interpret it. The search committee had reviewed the applications, and had decided to cancel that search and re-open it later with a modified position announcement - but the applicants were invited to respond to the new announcement. I wasn't sure how to take this. Why would I bother applying a second time when my first application apparently didn't meet their intended requirements? It was just strange.

The combination of these negative responses and the stress of my dissertation research led to a very negative outlook on the future. No matter how many times I tried to tell myself to give it another month, to give the various search committees more time to review the applications and make their initial decisions, I felt that I was not going to get a job an was not even going to graduate. It was, to say the least, a depressing start to the new year.

So when I checked my email one Friday in mid-January and saw an email referencing one of my applications, I felt not the least expectation. There was no ceremony or expectation to opening it, merely some straightforward business-as-usual in stepping through every email. And I was almost awestruck to read that the faculty was "most impressed" with my application and wanted me to come onto campus for an interview.

I was even fortunate enough to discover this email at a small local conference, that my advisor had returned from sabbatical to attend; any other day I would have to email her the news, but this one day I was able to speed-walk across the conference room to share the excitement in person. The thrill would last throughout the weekend, although after those first five minutes it was touched by a hint of stress: They wanted me to interview person, halfway across the country, within the next ten days. After three months of interminable waiting, feeling that the search committees were dragging their heels, the pace sped up exponentially.